“In our town, we like to know the facts. About everybody.”
So Barbara Oliver, as the Stage Manager, intones a wry commonplace, both pragmatic and self-aware, a scrap of the everyday that seems to define Our Town (now at the Berkeley Repertory Theater) as both parochial and worldly, spiritual in the way of a cosmology of changing seasons and human lives—and disappearing in the wake of progress.
Berkeley High graduate Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece and Pulitzer Prize winner—“a little play with all the big subjects in it,” as Wilder wrote to Gertrude Stein—is a late entry (1938) in what began as an offbeat American genre, heralded by the “grotesques” of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and the poem cycle of small town epitaphs of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, published during the First World War. Critical, even mocking of American provincialism, these earlier “small town anatomies” were underpinned by the bittersweet awareness of the passing away of that once-defining stratum of American life.
Nostalgia triumphed over critique, sensationalism over scandal, and “the dark underbelly of a small town” became a cliche, though notable additions to the canon have persisted, including Orson Welles’ film of The Magnificent Ambersons, some of John O’Hara’s and Edward Dahlberg’s prose, and poet Carl Rakosi’s “Americana” cycle.
Wilder’s play is like a summing up, a quiet but insistent voice talking to the future about what can reach it only as an aroma, a rumor. In spite of the steady erosion of the integrity of ordinary life Wilder records, he manages a startling flash photo, an afterimage of the subliminal effect of that life, only realizable with its loss. As one of his characters says from beyond the grave, looking back is painful, seeing the beauty that nobody living notices.
Theatrically, this was managed through a deliberate scarcity of means, a “poor theater”—no sets; the sense, almost, of a run-through of a village pageant introduced by the Stage Manager, who takes on a few parts himself, mingling with the townspeople-performers.
Jonathan Moscone has combined his talents as director with the conceptions of designers Neil Patel (set), Lydia Tanji (costumes), Scott Zielinski (lights) and Mark Bennett (sound and music) and an accomplished cast to bring the Rep’s audience a lyrical, somewhat evocative interpretation of Wilder’s immortalization of late New England Puritanism.
The collaborative effort strives to catch the fleeting sense of a first awareness of things—a first glimpse that’s also a memory.
The three acts cover the microcosmic panorama of the town and its citizens, with young love beginning to blossom, then the humorous rites of the plunge into marriage, followed quickly by the stark deadpan realities of mortality.
The Rep’s production peaks with the beautiful night scenes of moonlight— “terrible” moonlight, as lovestruck Emily Webb (Emma Roberts) calls its seduction—and the smell of heliotrope, as the whole town looks out at the moon. Lifelong neighbors Emily and George Gibbs (Bill Heck) are falling in love—in counterpoint to the careening drunken choirmaster (Ken Ruta) and his misanthropy, half tolerated, half a subject for gossip.
The second act begins with a flash and a thunderclap, and the dry commentary of the Stage Manager: “ ... three years gone by ... here and there babies who hadn’t even been born talking regular sentences ... all that can happen in a thousand days ...” George and Emily are getting married; they recall how they first knew just what they meant to each other. Heck and Roberts are charming as the young lovers, performing well-choreographed physical comedy as a kind of ongoing mating dance. But their attractiveness becomes brittle as the play changes phase, cutting through the director’s conception.
The deliberate anachronism of the original isn’t matched by inadvertent anachronistic touches in this production; spare simplicity and a penchant for showing and naming get overtaken by over-embellishment and a kind of agitated vivacity, which becomes cloying in the face of the awful serenity of the sublime.
There’s a problem, too, with authenticity. Much of the behavior, as one spectator put it, is more early 21st century looking back to the films of the 40s and early 50s than the late 30s looking back to the very early 20th century.
Ken Ruta’s hapless choirmaster—whose tombstone has no verses for epitaph, “just some notes of music”—strikes the right chord, but somehow the character lineaments of most of the rest of this talented cast, the children excepted, don’t seem to pass through the shadow, or the quiet subtleties of Wilder’s plainspoken vision, without getting spoiled a little.
“Whenever you get near the human race, there are layers and layers of nonsense,” one character says.
But a nonsense that in retrospect shines with humanity as well as self-disgust, and evaporates in the light. Wilder’s play, like the time capsule the citizens put in a cornerstone, is still fresh. It stands up. The Rep’s charming evocation of a modern classic does a dance around its original.
The Berkeley Rep presents Our Town through Oct. 23 at the Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St. For more information, call 647-2900 or see www.berkeleyrep.org.