(January 21, 2012 in Santa Monica, California) Our good fortune that the Broad Stage here in Santa Monica created for this play a new shape of theater. Under the direction of David Cromer, they cleared the old traditional space, set risers and chairs on three sides, and in the center, placed a couple of plain tables and chairs -- stark minimal staging to bring us this unique production of Thornton Wilder’s American classic, Our Town. And if you were a student in one of the countless high schools that produced this tremendously popular “school” play, you would expect the “traditional” Stage Manager to be a middle-aged gentleman in a tweed jacket with elbow patches who rather casually saunters out to explain that this is Grover’s Corners. Instead, a woman, in jeans and a casual shirt, strides into the center of the room as if she were a capable usher helping audience to their seats. This version’s Stage Manager is the multi-talented Helen Hunt. The role of women has changed, not only since Grover’s Corners' turn of the century, but since Thornton Wilder wrote the play. The actors wear street clothes and, more startling, when the play begins, the lights are not lowered! You see the play in full intimate view of the entire audience. This is an Our Town for our times.
The effect of seeing a “play” with the lights on is startling enough, but if, like me, your school play was produced in 1940 -- the same year that I saw the award-winning film of Our Town starring William Holden -- imagine the time warp. In the classic film, Network, note that the craggy old news guy was William Holden. In the film, Our Town, William Holden plays the young George Gibbs. In fact, since your Stage Director is an actual movie star, note that you can see now in 2012, through Netflix, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, and others as young and then, at the end of careers, as old…highlighting Thornton Wilder’s theme: how we rush through life without stopping to notice the wonder of living life itself, and the marvel of man’s relation to the universe. In this new version, you see it lights on -- your neighbors in full view around you.
So, in Grover’s Corners, the Mother Gibbs and the Mother Webb are making breakfast for the kids and will be making three meals a day for the rest of their lives. The newspaper boy runs down the aisles, tossing his paper. The milkman leaves his quarts and his butter at the door. Emily and George meet in such innocence and will marry, literally, “until death does them part.” George Gibbs’s father, on the wedding day, tries to explain the secrets of the marriage bed. In the films of 1940, my era, married couples slept in twin beds -- no hint of any marital hanky panky. Clark Gable and Claudet Colbert, in the classic comedy, It Happened One Night, playing an unmarried man and woman, shared a room...but only with the protection of a blanket hanging between them.
When I married in 1948, we had our hanky panky, but it was still a no-no. And if you didn’t marry at 21, you were in peril of being an “old maid.” Now, in 2012, we have Juno. Women are proudly pregnant in tight tee-shirts. Yet Wilder’s question remains the same: Times have changed, but do we ever take the time in the daily rush and look at our lives, appreciate that we are alive, and ponder who we are in relation to the universe?
But then we are in 2012, beyond the “new times” of 1938 when Wilder wrote the play, and far beyond my WWII days when, if you ran out of gas, you walked a half-mile to find a public phone. The audience, in full light, is asked to turn off their cell phones. And therein lies a changed planet.
The Gibbs and the Webbs probably did not have a phone. My family of 1935 used the pay phone in the corner deli. In 1940, the phone was high on the hallway wall, no place to sit, short calls, save money. Now, in this new incarnation, we are asked to turn off smartphones -- these gadgets which put us in immediate touch, not only with each other (as we are in this lighted room), but with the rest of the world. Intermission: the phones come out. Need information? It’s not necessary to wait until tomorrow for the library, a leisurely hunt through the card files. Just a touch of the finger brings us…everything. We live fast and, in what may have been quiet, reflective moments, we have our movies and our TV and our Facebooks and our everything.
Emily Gibbs, who will soon meet George and eventually marry him, was, in the 1938 play, sweet and soft. When she got upset, she almost swooned. Emily, in this well-lit room, is today’s Emily. Well-played by Jennifer Grace, she is a strong-voiced and self-contained young woman. We understand this Emily. James McMenamin plays a sympathetic George. Clearly the balance of men and women has shifted with time.
The lights dim a bit, and we find ourselves in the graveyard where the dear departed try to convince Emily to let go of the stresses and demands of life and to wait for something important which is coming.
This time, the questions are presented not to an audience sitting in a darkened theater, all interior, softly inquiring. These are bright, fast times, sophisticated times, exciting times, scary times without that old-timey, tight-family security. Lost, perhaps forever, is the innocence of yesterday. Or, this audience might ask: is the sense of yesterday’s “family and security” a romantic notion, and too much a price to pay for a life without today’s fast pace and continual excitement?
And those questions are asked in the bright light of disclosure, surrounded by “friends and neighbors.”
There are still two weeks to catch Our Town at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. If you can Netflix it, watch the 1940s film first. Then enjoy today’s fine presentation at a relatively new and exciting theater here on the Westside.
'Our Town' runs at The Broad Stage from January 13th through February 12, 2012.