" 'Our Town,' " Wilder later wrote in his preface to "Three Plays," "is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village. It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."
"Our Town" is a cautionary tale. Emily, Wilder's heroine, doesn't find the value of life until she is in her grave. Wilder didn't want audiences to wait that long. But truth and discovery are not so easy to find in the granitic interpretation "Our Town" is being given as the season-opening production at Hartford Stage.
You can't fault director Gregory Boyd for steering us away from the cloying American sampler warmth and sentimentality that so often coats a play that has come to be associated with high school and college theater.
Boyd draws on the rugged New Hampshire landscape and the tough, pragmatic, no-frills, no-nonsense temperament of the residents of Wilder's fictitious Grover's Corners. Seasons come and go. Life in Grover's Corners moves through its cycles without a never-you-mind. And yet, something of value is missing in Boyd's translation.
Boyd's cast headed by a surprisingly cautious Hal Holbrook as The Stage Manager; Annalee Jefferies and Josie de Guzman as mothers Webb and Gibbs, respectively; Frank Converse and Ross Bickell as, respectively, Editor Webb and Doc Gibbs; and including Hartford Stage veterans Nafe Katter, Noble Shropshire, and Bill Kux moves and speaks with steadfast certainty and presentational matter-of-factness.
But for all the authenticity of place and tone, the play's truths are lost. With the notable exceptions of Jefferies and de Guzman and some nice contributions by Kux, Katter, Shropshire and Charlotte Booker this production has all the emotional aridity of Prof. Willard's discourse on Grover's Corners' archaeological and sociological history and make-up.
With a tendency to pound out his words in an accent that is an uneasy mix of New Hampshire accent and Irish brogue, Converse's Editor Webb sounds as if he is never far removed from a whiskey bottle.
Bickell's bankerlike Doc Gibbs is as immaculate in wardrobe as he is in manner.
Donovan Patton's George Gibbs is amiable and about as memorable as a slice of fresh white bread.
As Emily, Ginna Carter offers little for Patton to work with and even less for us to care about. Rather than a Grover's Corners native, Carter's Emily is more like a punk princess from the streets of New York transplanted against her will to rural New Hampshire. This is not a woman who will be content to take her place as a keeper of the household, mother, dairy farmer's wife.
"Moliere said that for theatre all
he needed was a platform and a passion or two," Wilder wrote in his preface to "Three Plays."
"The climax of this play needs only five square feet and the passion to know what life means to us." That climax is crowned by Emily's final speech, which ends with the play's core question "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?"
The speech spills out of Carter's mouth in a passionless, thoughtless rush, the emotional equivalent of one long run-on sentence.
"You've got to love life to have life, and you've got to have life to love life," the Stage Manager says in his monologue at the opening of the play's second act. Boyd's production does neither. But, then, that's the way it is in Granite Corners.
To reach Jeffrey Borak: firstname.lastname@example.org, (413) 496-6212