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A CurtainUp Review
Wilder, Wilder. . .
By Elyse Sommer
Thornton Wilder's connection to the Berkshire Theater Festival dates back more than half a century, when he performed the part of the Stage Manager in his enduringly popular and moving Our Town. Now, on the 100th anniversary of his birthday, BTF is commemorating Wilder's work with four one-acters at its beautiful new second stage, the Unicorn Theater.
Don't let the four one-acters by another great playwright Anton Chekhov which marked the BTF's recent Main Stage opening keep you from catching this much more satisfying and highly theatrical evening. The Chekhov quartet had no connection to the playwright's more mature work or to each other, nor were they particularly noteworthy in terms of dramaturgy or acting. This quartet, on the other hand, while not to be compared with Wilder's well known bigger plays, nevertheless represent the work of a mature talent. The first two plays were done in 1960 and the others before Our Townand Skin of Our Teeth but after he had won his first Pulitzer for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Director Eric Hill has arranged these slices of the human condition in a way that gives them unity both in terms of content and style. His sure-handed direction is strongly supported by a topnotch design team (notably Kenichiwa Toki's innovative minimalist set, and Debra Siegel's lighting design) and a cast that richly deserves the adjective superb. In fact, these still unknown actors make a strong case for summer stock theater administrator to be less concerned with "look who we've got" castingand a stronger focus on showcasing the work of emerging talent.
As, Our Town, takes us through the life cycle of the citizens of an entire town , Hill has organized these four playlets to show the life cycle within a family and finally, in Pullman Car Hiawatha, the more universal scheme of things. The organizing principle that gives this production its strength is actually three-fold. First there's the device of having the actors prepare for their roles right before our eyes to pull us into the theatrical arc--which works well to a point but is somewhat overdone and thus a tad tiresome. Then, as the actors become characters, and the sketches propel them from infancy to adolescence to adult life, there's an accompanying shift in mood--from the absurdist sitcom humor of Infancy, to the darker layers peeking out beneath Childhood and The Happy Journey to Camden and Trenton--to the more somber and disturbing feeling that informs the last, Pullman Car Hiawatha.
Judged as individual plays, the two in the middle work best. The first, Childhood, has three adolescents give a hilarious reading of Freud's Totem and Tabu--killing off mom and dad, but with the Super Ego stepping in before anarchy really takes hold. Julia Dion as the older sister and instigator who remains somewhat reluctant to end the game so soon plays her part with particular panache, a standout in the outstanding ensemble. The Happy Journey to Camden and Trenton which takes the family on an automobile trip to a married sister's (Jennie Burkhart) house is still for the most part light-hearted. It ends on a sad and poignant note as the no-nonsense family matriarch (Jolyn Unruh) tries to comfort her grieving daughter.
As for the two bookends holding up the middle plays, the first while silly and a bit too drawn out, is nevertheless amusing thanks once again to its bravura performances. Matthew Miller as Officer Avonzino is a wonder of nimble-footed clowning. Jonathan Uffelman and Lawrence Bayles as the two babies trying to express their infant helplessness as they periodically pop forth from the depth of their prams are hilarious even when the joke of the situation threatens to wear a bit thin. Positioned as it is, Infancy ties in perfectly with the Freudian message of the more deeply Freudian Childhood that follows.
The windup play, Pullman Car Hiawatha, is the most populated and ambitious of the lot. Unfortunately, it is also the least satisfying. Unlike its predecessors it fails to engage audience sympathy except for its stunningly innovatinge staging. I was particularly struck by the way the soft levoleer-like wall, used to good effect throughout, is here lit to convey various Pullman sleeping compartments. Like Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth which in spite of winning a Pulitzer was not universally admired and liked, it suffers from a certain self-conscious artiness.
Despite the above mentioned shortcomings, Wilder, Wilder. . . adds up to an evening rich in theatricality. If the success of this production should result in a future BTF Main Stage mounting of Our Town, I hope artistic director Storch can persuade Eric Hill to take the directorial helm.