Ancient history tells of kings or wheat contracts, says the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But what about daily life in Babylon or Greece? Or, more recently, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire? Wilder chose an unlikely setting, “a very ordinary town...little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller.” If Grover’s Corners existed, which it doesn’t, it would sit near the Massachusetts border. The Stage Manager presents a “time capsule” of life in nowhere, USA, on May 7, 1901.
We watch an unimportant day. The effect is like studying a puddle of water with a microscope. Activity abounds. To emphasize his point, Wilder omits the trappings of theater: no proscenium curtain, no scenery. Just a bare stage, a few chairs, two tables, two stepladders. The aim: awaken our eyes to the abundance of life in the simple acts we take for granted.
And encourage audience participation: remember your first love, your wedding, your first loss? Didn’t it go something like this? As in Shakespeare’s theater, the audience brings its own experiences to fill in the story.
Even Wilder’s protagonist was a bit daring for 1938. Instead of a jut-jawed male, braving great odds, the central character is a young “ordinary” woman. Emily Gibbs falls in love, gets married, gives birth, and — the one “abnormal” event — dies young.
Then she wants to revisit the living. The late Mrs. Gibbs gives her strange advice: “Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.” As in the play itself, Wilder strips inessentials from Emily’s return. She finds a thousand things she never noticed when alive. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they lived it,” she asks, “every, every minute?”
Our Town has the passion of a poem and the effect, if one chooses to heed it, of a sermon on embracing life. It’s also, 110 years after the play is set, a mite sentimental, especially on second (or twelfth) viewing. And it is one WASP-ish script.
Director Sean Murray and Cygnet Theatre offer an updated staging. The “set” is bare (even the upstage loading door is open at first); the props, few (actors mime eating breakfast and shelling peas); the costumes, contemporary.
Two differences: the casting is “colorblind” — which nicely makes “our” town everyone’s — and the cast refrains from Wilder’s sentimental excesses.
Most choices work. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson’s bold, authoritative Stage Manager has a touch of the preacher about her. She seems certain we’ll slide back into “ignorance and blindness” if we don’t heed the play’s message. She even understands today’s flitting attention spans: to keep us focused she cuts scenes short, much to the performers’ dismay.
Though at times they “act” innocence rather than exude it, Jo Anne Glover and Francis Gercke are capable as Emily Webb and George Gibbs. Robin Christ, Tom Stephenson, Jim Chovick, and Dale Morris head a deep supporting cast. All aim for “genuine,” rooted emotions. But Our Town’s as fictive as Brigadoon, and peopled with imaginary innocents. Grounding them in “real” feelings plays against Wilder’s lure: nostalgia for (allegedly) simpler times. They become less moving.
When Emily returns to the living, the production changes styles: blinding lights zap the audience — the world as seen by a ghost? The choice is as inventive as unexpected. But it’s a jazzy, high-tech effect for one of the most low-tech scripts ever written.
On opening night of Amadeus, Miles Anderson had a cold. Except for frequent recourse to a handkerchief, which he pulled from a sleeve and treated as if laced with snuff, you never would have known. Anderson played Antonio Salieri, the court composer and green-eyed loather of young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He gave a masterful performance in one of theater’s most demanding roles. He played much of it front, in aria-like monologues, and managed to charm the audience, even with accusations about our mediocrity.
Peter Shaffer did to Salieri what William Shakespeare did to Richard III: they morphed complex historical figures into agents of evil. Shaffer shoved Salieri into one corner and marginalized Mozart as well: an enfant terrible whose high-pitched cackles and scatological speech irk like fingernails on a blackboard.
Shaffer created these — frankly inexcusable — excesses to toy with Mozart’s middle name: ama deus (“beloved of god”). Before he ever hears of the young genius, Salieri makes a Faustian pact with the “God of Bargains.” In exchange for a life of virtue, Salieri wants oodles of fame. But watch out what you wish for: Dr. Faustus got 24 years of worldly wonders; Salieri has 32. Whether the God of Bargains had anything to do with it — or even if one exists — remains an open question, since Salieri assumes God’s role in his efforts to “block” Mozart. Then he regrets every move he made.
Amadeus is one manipulated drama. In subordinating everything, including historical accuracy, to his theme, Shaffer plays God. But the play also has strengths. And director Adrian Noble orchestrates them like a conductor.
The Old Globe’s production unfolds like a grand symphony, or, as Shaffer called it, a “black opera.” Voices feel like musical phrases. A chorus of actors doesn’t just move; it cuts figures, as if to unheard ditties. Deirdre Clancy’s glorious costumes and mountain-shaped wigs turn muted golds and blacks into clusters of notes.
Jay Whittaker makes Mozart freaky enough but tempers Shaffer’s cartooning with an undercurrent of dignity. Winslow Corbett, as Mozart’s wife Constanze, and Donald Carrier, as Joseph II, head a fine ensemble cast.
Salieri may or may not have made a pact with God. But one thing is clear: he would have been one hell of a music critic. His verbal appreciation of the third “Adagio” movement, in the “Serenade in B flat K 361 ‘Gran Partita,’” verges on the divine. ■
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Jo Anne Glover, Francis Gercke, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Jim Chovick, Tom Stephenson, Jason Connors, Robin Christ, Dale Morris, Keith Jefferson; scenic design, Andy Scrimger; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Michelle Caron; sound designer, Jason Connors
Playing through July 10; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; 619-337-1525
Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer
Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Adrian Noble; cast: Miles Anderson, Jay Whittaker, Winslow Corbett, Donald Carrier, Charles Janasz, Anthony Cochrane, Michael Stewart Allen; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Deirdre Clancy; lighting, Alan Burett; sound, David Bullard
Playing through September 22; runs in repertory with The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing; 619-234-5623