Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****
In December, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones wrote in his Theater Loop blog about the selection of director David Cromer as Theater Chicagoan of the Year. He mentioned that in May, Cromer had directed an "astonishing" production of Our Town.
Our Town astonishing? Really? That got my attention.
I found the review that Jones wrote and it was one of the most enthusiastic I've ever read. He used words like "astounding" and "brilliantly revisionist" in describing the performance, put on in a cramped basement by a small company called The Hypocrites.
I'd read Thornton Wilder's play in high school and I saw a good production in 2007 at Trinity Repertory Company. But I couldn't even begin to imagine what Cromer had done to elicit this kind of praise. I knew that if Our Town ever came to New York, I wanted to see it.
Well, last week I had a chance to make my way down to the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village for Our Town. And it was worth the trip because Jones' rave review was right on target. Seeing new life breathed into a classic American play is a wonderful experience.
First, Barrow Street, located in a community center, fits this production so well. The theatre seats about 200 people and isn't much bigger than some living rooms I've been in. The play takes place literally right in front of the audience. And in keeping with Wilder's instructions, there's almost no scenery or props.
It's easy to think of Our Town, written in in 1938 and set in the first decade of the 20th century in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, as a quaint period piece. You could call it an an elegy to a small-town America that no longer exists.
Well, maybe the milkman doesn't bring the milk by horse-drawn wagon anymore. But Cromer has made the play contemporary and relevant. For the first time I thought, it could be taking place today. Watching the daily life of Our Town's residents unfold didn't seem all that distant.
Plus, as the stage manager who narrates Our Town, Cromer gives one of the best performances I've ever seen - completely natural and unaffected.
At the center of Our Town is the story of Emily Webb, the newspaper editor's daughter, and George Gibbs, the doctor's son. As Emily and George, Jennifer Grace and James McMenamin truly embody the awkwardness of teenagers.
They give the play its timeless quality - no matter how much things change, kids are still kids. You have dreams and insecurities. You fall in love. Eventually, you have to confront adulthood in all of its joy and heartache and regrets. And Grace does an especially fine job appearing first little girlish, then a teenager, and finally, a young woman.
I've seen so many play revivals over the past few years where it seemed like there was nothing new to say and the work showed its age. But this was different. It was so satisfying and it made me look at the play in a different way.
I always felt that the third and final act of Our Town seemed a little tacked on. But Cromer makes a decision that made me gasp. It was unexpected, yet loyal to the theme of the play, about what we should cherish in life. It was visceral and vivid and reminded me so much of people in my own life that I got choked up.
I was already pretty excited about the two Neil Simon revivals that Cromer will direct on Broadway this fall - Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. After Our Town, I just cannot wait to see what he does with them.
Our Town has now been extended through Jan. 31, 2010, and Cromer will be with it through Aug. 16, when he leaves to start rehearsals on the Neil Simon plays.