A gleeful amateur appears in 'Our Town'

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WILLIAMSTOWN - A professor from a small town plays a smalltown professor in a play aware of its audience.

That local man is George T. "Sam" Crane, a Williams College professor now on stage in "Our Town," a classic 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Thornton Wilder that Crane considers an anthropological study of "big questions of finding eternal in the every day."

The play opened yesterday on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and runs through Aug. 8.

The story looks at the love of George Gibbs and Emily Webb, from their births to Emily's death in childbirthand is based in a fictional New England town not unlike Williamstown.

A member of the Williams College political science department for 21 years, Crane did not always envision a teaching career specializing in ancient Chinese thought. He acted in plays in high school and college, even showing interest in acting school.

"But it faded out of my life," he said. For 30 years. Then associates recommended that he try out for an upcoming Williamstown Theatre Festival play.

Artistic director Nicholas Martin meanwhile had spent four months in preparation for his final season with the theater festival.

" For casting, I called all my friends," he said.

Members of WTF's longtime theatrical family in the cast of "Our Town" include Becky Ann Baker, Dylan Baker, Jessica Hecht, John Rubinstein and Campbell Scott. Newcomer Brie Larson will star as Emily Webb.

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Martin also searched for someone from the Berkshires to fulfill a small yet crucial role: Professor Willard, the town historian described in the play's stage directions as "a little dried-up man."

" It was suggested that I look around locally for talent," Martin said, "which I thought would be unlikely to find."

He could not have hoped for better than Crane, he said.

"Sam is charming but so defined the part," Martin said. "We're lucky to have him. Sam's so happy to be on the stage that it is infectious."

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Crane does not identify with the role besides his profession. He has taken the role in "Our Town" to experience life in someone else's shoes.

"I'm hoping to take advantage of it, because I'm interested and drawn in," he said. "I feel like an anthropologist invited into this community of actors to observe them."

He's learned that the stage is more than a dream for some, but a livelihood and a workplace.

"I'm impressed with their accomplishments," he said of the cast, which includes a Tony Award-winner (Rubinstein) and a nominee (Hecht).

"It's not just talent. They are professionals, aware of their craft. It's incredible that they can do so much with a pause or inflection," he said. In contrast to the pompous Professor Willard, Crane has been humbled by the company he's been keeping. " I'm learning being around incredible, marvelous people," he said. "I have modest expectations, but I'm enjoying my moment and having a great time."

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Artistic director Martin fulfills a wish as he brings "Our Town" to the Main Stage.

"Now I seize the opportunity," he said. "This is the greatest American play, a trailblazing production because nobody had done anything so stylistically simple."

"Our Town" was Wilder's experiment with minimal props and scenery, as well as a meta-theatrical aspect, a stage director character who is aware of the audience.

"It paved the way for modern theater," Martin said.

For him, the entire work is sublime. "A perfect cohesion of script and its realization," he said. "Except for a few artistic flourishes, I've tried to make the production as unassuming as possible.

"With this cast, there's not very much to do. The play's framework is based on performers. It made my job real easy."

The hard work and passion lead up to opening night shows, in his opinion.

" I hope audiences will be as moved as I was during rehearsal," he said. "It's very hard to sit in rehearsal without crying, for everyone. But we do quite a lot of laughing."


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