ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When I was teaching at Ohio State, we did “Our Town.” And when I was teaching at UNM, we did a production of “Our Town” as well. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play is an American classic, and it still gets done a lot, and for good reason. It’s a very powerful play.
Mother Road Theatre Company is producing the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and it’s quite different from any of the other productions I’ve seen. Directors Vic Browder and Colin Jones have chosen to concretely conceptualize Grover’s Corners not as the very small town in rural America that it is, but as a small town in the “Western Hemisphere, the Earth, the solar system, the universe, the mind of God,” as Rebecca describes it. The entire theater is painted with swirling galaxies and stars and supernovas while Brian Eno-like space music plays frequently. The stage Manager even wears a costume that looks like something right out of the “Summer of Love” and Woodstock era. When Emily leaves the world of the dead to revisit earth, we hear the sound of a film playing backward. It’s all very literal.
The problem with this concept is that is goes directly against Wilder’s metatheatrical conceit. Wilder explicitly says there should be no scenery, and we are to remain very conscious that we are watching a play, especially as the Stage Manager, with a great deal of irony, talks to the audience throughout. (In the one concession made to scenery, he says, “There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery.”) Scenic artist Albert Rosales has made a beautiful work of art of the theater space, but it still pales in comparison with the real thing, which we are normally meant to imagine.
The play has sometimes been criticized for its “white bread sentimentality.” It’s anything but sentimental; in fact, I think Wilder is too hard on, even contemptuous of, the small-town folks who make up the characters of the play. But there is no question that 1901 rural New Hampshire was very white. The directors have countered this by gender- and race-neutral casting. It’s an interesting idea, but for the most part, it does not work. Angela Littleton, a very talented actress, is simply miscast as Mrs. Webb, and the same goes for many of the other actors. I hate to say it, but this is a play in which typecasting really aids the production.
In a postmodern 21st century “Our Town,” we lose much of what that specific town in that specific time and place was like. It is certainly true that, as the Stage Manager says, “there is something eternal in human beings,” but with this play, especially, the universal must be found in the particular; the particularity of these people at that particular time and that particular place.
However, there are some fine performances, especially Mark Risler as Mr. Webb and Clifton Chadwick as Dr. Gibbs. This is a very bold concept, and it misfires. But anything that the gutsy Mother Road does is worth seeing. We often learn a lot from our noble failures.
“Our Town” is playing through Oct. 21 at MTS Black Box, 6320 Domingo Road NE, Albuquerque. Go to motherroad.org or call 243.0596 for reservations.