Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney on Friday, April 25th at 8:00pm
OUR TOWN has come home – literally. Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in New Jersey at McCarter Theatre at Princeton University in 1938. Now, more than 75 years later, the timeless classic is onstage at George Street Playhouse in an inaugural partnership with nearby Rutgers University. Although Wilder set his meditation on life and death in a fictional New Hampshire town called Grover’s Corners, he earned his master’s degree from Princeton and taught school in nearby Lawrenceville. He set his 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Skin of Our Teeth” completely in the Garden State.
OUR TOWN hardly needs introduction. It has been performed across the globe on stages large and small practically non-stop since its premiere. Chances are you have seen a production somewhere at sometime. But the magic of Wilder’s masterwork is that despite being set just after the turn of the last century it somehow seems timeless. Examining small town life before the advent of technology and industrialization, Wilder created a play told without scenery, without props, and even without much in the way of plot. The events of life are his subject – and the miracle of his writing is that three quarters of a century of progress hasn’t rendered the script dated or quaint. The play is divided into three acts: daily life, love and marriage, and death. As one character so aptly puts it “My, isn’t life awful – and wonderful.”
George Street Playhouse’s new production is certainly the latter. Director David Esbjornson wisely eschews directorial trickery to present a clean, concise and ultimately traditional OUR TOWN that manages to fulfill Wilder’s mission of being palpably modern while simultaneously recalling a lost time and place. In order to meld Rutgers with New Brunswick’s Theatre Row, Esbjornson (chair of the University’s Theatre Program) has recruited a fine cast featuring Rutgers alumni, current students, and theater veterans led by Tony winner Boyd Gaines. As the Stage Manger, Gaines lends a quiet gravitas to the proceedings, his centered authority always emanating a respect for the material and his great privilege to share it with us. The Stage Manager is essentially Wilder himself. The author even played the role on Broadway for a fortnight in 1938. The entire ensemble is uniformly excellent, but Aaron Ballard stands out as Emily, arguably the show’s leading character. Ballard’s Emily is a refreshingly simple creation. A gawky country girl, not completely comfortable in her own skin, but terribly earnest in intention.
Ending their 40th Anniversary Season, this long-awaited ‘town and gown’ partnership between George Street and Rutgers has created a new theater community – and community is one of Wilder’s chief themes. Esbjornson brilliantly reinforces those themes with subtle touches. Act Two’s nuptials are set amid the orchestra section, involving us, the audience, in a way that never seems forced or gimmicky. Scott Zielinski’s lighting casts a warm amber glow over us as we bear witness to this important event in Emily’s life. As a nod toward timelessness, stars are frequently mentioned in OUR TOWN.
Toward that end, bare bulbs hang above both stage and auditorium lending added poignancy to lines like“The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, – doesn’t it?” Esbjornson also wisely directs his cast away from huge ‘Pepperidge Farm’ accents that mar lesser TOWNs with too much specificity. This Grover’s Corners might be New Brunswick, Princeton, or your town. Mid-way through they play, Wilder has one of the town’s youngest citizens muse on their place in the world: “Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” Specific and universal – that’s the brilliance of OUR TOWN and in aim this production excels. Visit Grover’s Corners at George Street Playhouse now through May 25th.
The George Street Playhouse at 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ