The 75th anniversary production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” at Ford’s Theatre was my first exposure to this classic and I mean this in the most complimentary sense, it is a very pleasant show. For the uninitiated, the show takes place at the beginning of the 1900s in a small New Hampshire Town and focuses on the Webb and Gibbs families and the relationship of the young George Gibbs and Emily Webb from the first expression of feelings, to marriage to death. The first two acts are just an enjoyable and pleasant theater going experience, but come the third act when the issue of death arises and makes the show more than a two and a half hour journey that is enjoyable but that has no real message. In the end, be thankful for the third act where the experiences and existence of the first two acts is taken into a critical examination.
For a show written 75 years ago there was no doubt going to be some antiquated moments in the show, but fortunately they did not distract from the production as a whole. For instance, married couples referred to each other as Mr. and Mrs. instead of by their first names. At one point, George tells Emily that he has been is his room watching Emily in her room across the street. In the early 1900s this is said rather innocently. In the early 2000s it comes across as a bit creepy. But there was something about the script and the performances that didn’t make these moments feel dated, which I often find as a problem of older shows. Speaking of the casting, Ford’s went for a version of color blind casting that was extremely effective. It wasn’t true color blind casting as there was a clear intent to cast each couple in the show as an interracial couple. But as the characters interacted the issue of race faded quickly into the background, which the cast deserves much credit for considering this is a show that takes place at a time and place where I would imagine the issue of race wouldn’t fade so quickly.
If I were to have one complaint about the show it might be the set. They clearly decided to go with a minimalist set using 30 to 40 white chairs as the only objects on stage and set up to establish the main street in the town and to stand in for the homes of the Gibbs and Webbs. Much of the cast remained on stage sitting in the chairs throughout the production instead of regressing to off stage. They also decided to have the characters mime what they were doing, like drinking a strawberry ice cream float, eating dinner, or carrying books, instead of having props. This minimalist take on the show was not a distraction and could be seen as further characterizing this average small town. My one quibble would be that there is an extremely large cast and only about 8 to 10 characters that really move the show forward. So a lot of the actors are left to be scenary. While probably not true, it almost seemed as if they decided to invest in actors instead creating a set.
One interesting aspect of this show for me was that I saw “The Motherfucker with the Hat” two days earlier at Studio Theatre. These two shows could not be more different when examining relationships. One has two young lovers nervously trying to find the words to express to each other how they feel while drinking strawberry ice cream floats verus a modern day couple spewing every four letter word at each other to express how they feel while snorting cocaine and drinking. One deals with growing up in a small town and the support and love you get from those around you and the other deals with master manipulators willing to take advantage of every opportunity presented to them without any sense of remorse. The best part though is that both were thoroughly entertaining despite the immense differences.
Coming up this week: Glengarry Glen Ross at Roundhouse; Metamorphoses at Arena Stage; and Hughie at the Lansburgh Theatre