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A CurtainUp Review
Our Town

There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being
---the Stage Manager, who gives voice to the Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town's most often quoted wit and wisdom. Another favorite: You've got to love life to have life, and you've got to have life to love life.
The 1938 pre-Broadway Boston tryout of Thornton Wilder's Our Town was received so poorly that the rest of the booking was cancelled. The play nevertheless soldiered on to the Henry Miller in New York where audiences didn't give it a standing ovation either. That didn't keep the Pulitzer committee from awarding it the best play prize, Wilder's second Pulitzer, the first being for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Ray. The prize helped shore up a growing appreciation of what Brooks Atkinson meant when he lauded the playwright's ability to "view mankind with childlike simplicity" and to do so without any scenery.

Since that first very respectable 336 performance Broadwayrun, and the 1940 film version in which Frank Craven again played the Stage Manager, the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners has slipped into our lexicon as a geographic metaphor for small town U.S. A. during the first decade of the twentieth century— a way to reflect with the play's Stage Manager on "the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying."

Our Town also became a standard for regional and high school theater productions and it takes something or someone special to give a commercial production a big box office buzz. The Westport Country Playhouse found that someone special in artistic director Joanne Woodward's husband, Paul Newman. Mr. Newman appearance as the Stage Manager marks his first stage performance since 1964. With Newman, a Westport resident as well as a popular film star and food-for-charity entrepreneur, it's small wonder that Our Town was the hit of the Playhouse summer season. Judging from the advance sale of the production's transfer to Broadway, with Newman and the rest of the Westport cast in place, this limited run is likely to repeat that history. And not without justification.

Like his character, Newman knows what he's talking about when he brushes his hands together and exclaims "Woosh-- and you're seventy!" His hair is white, the voice is a bit thin and, if you look closely, he almost looks his seventy-seven years. But the twinkle in the blue eyes behind the granddaddy glasses is there, the actor still has enormous presence and proves himself an ideal guide through Grover's Corners, population 2,642.

While Newman's name is the ticket selling magnet, he has done his utmost to keep the focus on the play as an ensemble work -- from his credit (below the title and in alphabetical order) to his understated comic bio ("Paul Newman is probably best known for his spectacularly successful food conglomerate. . ."), to his stage entrance (his back to the audience as if by turning face front gradually he can avoid having the audience give him a big hand). The ensemble is indeed an assemblage of fine actors.

Maggie Lacey and Ben Fox are a charming pair of young lovers. Lacey's Emily has the same fresh-faced loveliness and intelligence as Martha Scott of the film version. When in the most poignant final act, Emily returns from her place with the dead to relive her twelfth birthday, she takes a complete hold of your heartstrings. Ben Fox, while looking nothing like William Holden, wins you over with his very genuine boyish charm.

Of the town elders Jeffrey DeMunn's editor Webb, Frank Converse's Dr. Gibbs and Jayne Atkinson's Mrs. Gibbs are particularly strong. Stephen Spinella appears briefly but memorably as the unhappy organist and leader of the church choir. That choir rehearsal, and the wedding at which Newman, stepping out of his observer's role, officiates (he also acts as drug store proprietor long enough to keep Emily and George's ice cream soda date from getting too saccharine), are some of the play's loveliest moments. James Naughton has over-encouraged some of the actors to play up the sense of their having climbed out of a Norman Rockwell poster and the mimed cooking and table setting and coffee pouring at times seems distractingly busy, especially in Mrs. Gibbs's kitchen. On the whole, this is a sturdy a production that captures the details of the daily life in turn-of-the-century small town America and the inevitable and all too swift journey to the hillside cemetery.

By having performers speak from the aisles and one of the boxes during the first act and turning up the lights, Naughton transforms the audience into the unseen town residents. This also paves the way for their feeling part of those seated spirits in the graveyard at the end of the second act (the play was actually written in three acts, but here has just one break.

Tony Walton has given the famously spare set a rather oppressive and fussy backstage look which, in the opening scene, is lit only by a ghost light. He has also designed the costumes in an apt palette of browns and blacks and grays which highlights the ethereal glow of the white worn by Emily at her wedding and again when she returns from the dead long enough to beg her ever busy Mama " look at me one minute as though you really saw me." and sums up Wilder's ode to life with "Good-bye, Grover's Corners. . .Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking. . ..and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths. . .and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every,every minute?"

The last Broadway production of Our Town, in 1988 was a less successful attempt to introduce a name-brand Stage Manager (Spalding Gray) preceded the birth of CurtainUp. However, we did review a more drastic departure presented Off-Broadway last year with the narrator a teenager, and Emily and George played by middle-aged actors. --the review. This season, theater goers also had the opportunity to see a darker, less sentimental type of Grover's Corners, courtesy of Lanford Wilson's Book of Days.

Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by James Naughton
Cast (alphabetical order): Jayne Atkinson (Mrs. Gibbs), John Braden (Professor Willard), Tom Brennan (Joe Stoddard), ), Frank Converse (Dr. Gibbs), Jane Curtin (Mrs. Webb), ) Jeffrey DeMunn (Mr. Webb), Mia Dillon (Mrs. Soames), Conor Donovan (Wally Webb), Ben Fox (George Gibbs), Kristen Hahn (Rebecca Gibbs), Carter Jackson (Sam Craig), Maggie Lacey (Emily Webb), Stephen Mendillo (Constable Warren), Paul Newman (State Manager), Jake Robards (Howie Newsome), Stephen Spinella (Simon Stimson), Ti Sullivan (Joe Crowell), Travis Walters (Si Crowell). Also: Kieran Campion and Patch Darragh (Baseball Players); Wendy Barrie-Wilson & Cynthiaa Wallace (Women in the Auditorium); Beathel Bean (Man in the Auditorium.
Set and Costume Design: Tony Walton;
Lighting Design:Richard Pilbrow
Sound Design: Raymond D. Schilke
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, includes one 15-minute intermission
A Westport Country Playhouse production
Booth, 222 W. 45th St. (Broadway/ 8th Avee) 212-239-6200
11/22/02-1/26/03; opening 12/03/02.
Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm -- $75. .
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 2nd press preview.
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