Its universality, its simplicity and its immediacy are among the good reasons why, in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town won him the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes. They’re the same reasons why, during the 70 subsequent years, it has been one of the most frequently produced American plays, from most of America’s high schools to four star-topped Broadway revivals.
Further, they’re the reasons why performances of Our Town remain powerful and satisfying whether the production is brilliant, bludgeoned or — like the new production on view weekends at Covedale Center — sweet spirited, pliant and neatly managed.
On opening night, Covedale’s production had an unusual aspect. Michael Shawn Starks — the Gaylord Ravenal of the Showboat Majestic’s recent Show Boat and the red-tuxedoed, CEA-nominated Satan of New Stage Collective’s Jerry Springer: The Opera — assumed Our Town’s daunting leading role (that of the narrator/Stage Manager) less than a week before the Thursday opening, where he appeared graceful, unruffled and in charge after only five rehearsals. He carried a prompt script attached to a clipboard and referred to it as naturally as any lecturer might refer to notes while speaking.
Using the notes served to support Starks’ persuasive characterization, so much so that some first-nighters were likely unaware of his last-minute assumption of the role. Producer Jennifer Perrino said it was still to be decided whether Starks would carry the script during future performances or would discard it once he had his lines memorized.
As Wilder sought to make Our Town into everytown, he did more than strip away realistic sets and props.
The “bare stage” locale called for by the script is metaphoric, a universal anywhere where things don’t get in the way of ideas, where essence doesn’t get lost in detail. He distilled his story lines — the placid daily life of Act One, the love and marriage of Act Two and the death and eternity of Act Three — down to the timeless simplicity of parable.
Covedale’s cast and director (Mike Fielder) grab and hold onto that simplicity in performance and in production: a black-curtained limbo with a couple of staircases, two stepladders, some tables and chairs and some colorful lighting effects.
Wilder chose a specific time (1901) and place (tiny Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire), but they were sufficiently removed from 1938’s lingering economic depression at home and the gathering political storms abroad to gather iconic status. They seemed bucolic and reassuringly simple. Now, whether or not small town life in 1901 was actually as simple as portrayed is immaterial; it was sufficiently removed from 1938 to seem so. And still does.
Wilder penned in just enough details about the characters to make them emblematic of nuclear families everywhere. Then he gave them and his townspeople the sort of human-sized joys (spring, sunsets, chocolate sodas, a simple wedding) and personal tragedies (a ruptured appendix, alcoholism, suicide, death in childbirth) that anyone might experience no more than once removed. Then he expressed everything in words of lyrical beauty. At a guess, when Our Town turns 100 in the year 2038, it will still be one of the most frequently produced gems of the American theater.
In the Covedale production, some of the acting is more serviceable than inspiring, but Wilder’s simplicity and universality are there. Besides Starks, there are interesting performances from Dyan McGill and Ginny Utz as the moonlit young lovers and Angela Alexandria Nalley as Mrs. Gibbs.
Wilder was both a novelist and a playwright. His first Pulitzer (1928) was for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In a 1956 interview by The Paris Review, he remarked on a significant difference between the two disciplines. Novels are inevitably past tense, he wrote, while “onstage it is always now: The personages are standing on that razor edge between the past and the future … the words rising to their lips in immediate spontaneity.”
That’s as good a definition of theatrical immediacy as you’re likely to read. In performance the men, women, joys and sorrows of Our Town are the stuff of now. And forever.
OUR TOWN, presented by Covedale Center, continues through Nov. 23. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.