|Brie Larson, Campbell Scott, and Will Rogers in the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of “Our Town,’’ directed by Nicholas Martin. (T Charles Erickson)|
The sunny side of ‘Our Town’
Director Martin plays up laughs at expense of darker themes
WILLIAMSTOWN — For the last production he will direct as artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nicholas Martin has chosen what he has called his favorite play, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,’’ and has cast many of his favorite actors. But if such choices sound sentimental, rest assured that Martin’s approach to the play is strikingly dry-eyed.
If anything, the director has emphasized the lighter side of “Our Town’’ at the expense of its subtle profundities. Every line that could possibly get a laugh gets one, and every one that might hint at larger and darker themes is lightly, trippingly brushed past.
The result is a production that reveals the small-town comedy of the story — the petty differences among the citizens of Grover’s Corners, the eccentricities of the characters at its margins, the naivete of its lovestruck youth — but downplays its sorrows. And that, ultimately, robs the play of its most lasting and contradictory power: its remarkable ability to celebrate life by reminding us of its inevitable end.
As the Stage Manager, Campbell Scott sets the tone with an easy, casual air that brings out the character’s amusement at human folly and quietly asks us to share it. He’s a pleasant and mild-mannered host, and his low-key delivery allows us to hear the lines as if they’re simple conversation (and, even better, simple conversation that we haven’t heard a dozen times before). So it’s only natural that Scott glides right over the Stage Manager’s more unsettling ruminations. But it does mean that he doesn’t steer us toward deeper contemplation, as Wilder surely meant him to.
The rest of the ensemble, too, strikes the lighter note whenever possible. Brie Larson’s Emily Webb, in particular, is all girlish impetuosity and no profundity, even when she’s called upon to help us see a larger perspective. She’s often funny, in a modern-teenager sort of way; she’s never tragic. I didn’t think it was possible to watch Emily realizing the heartbreaking ephemerality of life without shedding a tear, but it turns out that it is.
That’s not just because of how this one speech sounds, however. The way “Our Town’’ works its epiphanic magic, when it works, is through the slow accretion of the most mundane details — and its sneakily quiet revelation of the truth that those details are what matter most. When, as here, all the details are played just for fun, they of course don’t seem to add up to much more.
So we get Becky Ann Baker’s Mrs. Gibbs, whose longing to see Paris is a yokel joke, not an expression of the dreams deferred that every adult harbors; Jessica Hecht’s Mrs. Webb, whose chiding of her daughter’s longing to be pretty comes across as an aging woman’s jealousy, not a mother’s misheard protectiveness; and Dylan Baker’s Mr. Webb, whose wedding-morning lecture to Emily’s bridegroom sounds more like gags from “The Lockhorns’’ than insights from long-married love. Even Jon Patrick Walker, as the suicidal Simon Stimson, seems more annoyed by his choir’s singing than heartbroken by his isolation.
This “Our Town’’ may well please those summer audiences just looking for a nostalgic good time. It’s certainly acted with a high degree of skill, and it’s expertly designed; David Korins’s set, which turns piles of old wooden chairs into a delicately balanced townscape, is particularly graceful.
The surfaces, in short, are charming to behold. But “Our Town’’ can do so much more than charm. At its best, it can hit us where we live.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.