Last week, I had lunch with an old college friend who was visiting New York from Seattle for four days. This guy is as a big a theater fan as I’ve ever known; he managed to see nine on- and off- Broadway shows in the four days he was in the city. Of course, I asked him what he’d seen and what he thought of everything, looking to compare notes and get recommendations. I was surprised when the first thing out of his mouth was a rave review of The Hypocrites’ production of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theater.
“Our Town?” I shrugged. “I feel like I’ve seen that show a hundred times.”
I’ll admit that I was dismissive. After attending productions put on by my high school, college, and multiple community theatres – not to mention memorizing lines from several scenes for the various acting classes of my youth – I could practically recite the whole play. It seemed unlikely that I’d be particularly amused by the letter addressed to “the Earth, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God;” or moved by the “goodbye to clocks ticking and my butternut tree” at the end.
Still, my old buddy knows his stuff. If he said Our Town was a must-see, I was going to take his word for it and check the production out. So, this past Saturday, I traipsed down to the Barrow Street Theater, and scored a day-of ticket.
From the moment that David Cromer enters as The Stage Manager, it is clear that this is not your average Our Town. His delivery is so smooth, so conversational and natural, that the couple sitting behind me really thought he was the actual stage manager for several minutes! He has absolutely no air of “performing” – he’s simply talking to the audience, and we listened. I forgot that I knew the script, and that’s a feat; Cromer narrates the play like it’s the story of his own life and the people he cares about. I think he made eye contact with every single person in the 199-seat theater that day.
Cromer, who also directs (and therefore personally merits the raves coming at the production from all sides), as the Stage Manager, is the heart of this show – even more than George and Emily (played by James McMenamin and Jennifer Grace). He sets the tone for all of the rest of the actors, who rise to his level and put on stellar performances, all.
In a ubiquitous play like Our Town, the decisions of the creative team make all the difference (as my dad likes to say, “no one goes to Romeo & Juliet to find out the ending”). The team behind this production hit it out of the park; there is no question in my mind that they will win any and every award for which they might be nominated.
At the start, the black-box theater is set up totally barebones. In the center of the space sit two tables, along with two chairs each (“some scenery, for those who think they have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager explains at the top of the show). The furniture is arranged to represent settings that vary from the kitchens of the Gibbs & Webb families, to the Grover’s Corners soda shop, to the local church and graveyard. The costume & prop designs are similarly minimalist, and it works.
I struggle with how much detail to discuss in this review, because like all great theatre pieces, it is the surprises that invoke the brilliance. I want to air on the side of caution on this one, but I’ll tell you that the minimalism is not all there is to behold about the design.
Without betraying any details, I shall tell you this: the creative choices made by the set-, prop-, and costume-designers, as well as the perfect direction by David Cromer, moved me to tears at a play I had previously considered to be insipid and tired. This is the ultimate accomplishment for any theatre maker, and I cannot overstate my ovation.
Please take my word for it that my friend from Seattle was correct. No matter how many times you may seen Our Town before, you have never seen it like this.