I n the 74 years since Thornton Wilder’s landmark drama “Our Town” premiered on Broadway, the fictional village of Grover’s Corners, N.H., has become a familiar destination for high school drama departments and community theaters across the country. Over time, the play, set at the turn of the last century, has often been enshrouded in an amber glow of folksy, homespun sentimentality and reflexive nostalgia, overshadowing its harsh truths and rueful meditations on life and death.
“I think it might have gotten misread for a while as an affirmation of small-town values. But it doesn’t really preach any values. It is an observation of the facts of human existence, of human behavior from a very objective point of view,” says director David Cromer, who won a 2009 Obie Award for his hit off-Broadway production of the play.
Now Cromer brings his intimate, stripped-down rethinking of Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play to a new production at the Huntington Theatre Company, which begins performances Friday in the Roberts Studio Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts. For the first few weeks of the run, Cromer will play the Stage Manager.
Developed with the Chicago theater company the Hypocrites, Cromer’s first production of “Our Town” debuted in 2008 inside a small basement venue in that city’s Wicker Park neighborhood, with Cromer playing the role of the Stage Manager. It earned glowing reviews and later transferred to New York, where it ran off-Broadway for more than 600 performances and became the longest-running production in the play’s history.
Cromer, 48, says he’s come to realize that people don’t know “Our Town” as well as they think they do. Indeed, the plot is straightforward and spare, chronicling the courtship of teenagers George and Emily, their subsequent marriage, and the seemingly ordinary events that happen in the lives of the town’s denizens.
“I thought the play was beautifully written and had a lot to say, but that it was overly sweet and very sentimental. I was always bothered by this Andy Hardy quality to all of the parents’ scenes,” Cromer says between bites of pizza during an interview at the Calderwood Pavilion. “But if you actually read those scenes carefully, the parents are incredibly flawed. They have massive communication problems with each other. And they’re sending constantly mixed signals to their children based on their own weaknesses.”
Cromer says he first appreciated the astringent qualities of “Our Town” after seeing a filmed performance of Gregory Mosher’s 1989 Lincoln Center Theater production, with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager.
“It explained how the play had, at times, this almost clinical detachment to suffering, to sentiment, to sweetness, to love. Which is really incredibly uncomfortable and chilling in some ways, because it contradicts the belief that the play is a celebration of life,” says Cromer, a 2010 MacArthur fellow. “The play seems quite cruel. It seems cruel to the characters and cruel about the things we care about, because it suggests that the sentimental version of the things we sometimes tell ourselves — that love will conquer all and that people live happily ever after, or that God is watching from above and is taking care of us — are not necessarily true in the way you think they are true.”
When Cromer was first approached by Hypocrites artistic director Sean Graney about staging “Our Town,” Graney told him, “Don’t be afraid to change everything,” Cromer recalls.
“But I don’t think that I am generally brave enough as a director to wander very far from exactly how the play is,” he says. “If I hadn’t been working for a company like the Hypocrites, I probably wouldn’t have pushed myself to honor the play and try to blow the dust off the play at the same time.”
Cromer knew that he didn’t want to “watch people walk around in knickers and suspenders and knee socks and carry books on straps,” he says, but he also wasn’t interested in a “concept” production.
So he and his design team spent a long time considering the playwright’s own bare-bones intentions. They zeroed in on Wilder’s stage directions, indicating the play should be performed with no set and no curtain.
“He wanted to invert things that people were expecting when they came to the theater, to disorient you,” Cromer says. “A guy’s going to talk to you directly and break the fourth wall, and there’s going to be time travel and flashbacks. But all these things that were very fresh and very exciting back then, we’re now so used to them.”
So Cromer says he and his designers had to figure out ways “to strip away all of the fake stuff that you see in a play that distances you from it.”
That ended up meaning leaving the house lights up for part of the play, largely eschewing theatrical lighting, immersing the audience in the playing space alongside the actors, and dressing the cast in the kind of contemporary clothes that people wear to the mall or the grocery store. The omniscient Stage Manager is reimagined as a brusque, perfunctory administrator carrying a yellow legal pad. Then there’s the third-act surprise that reinvents one of the play’s climactic scenes.
Scraping away the sentimentality and embracing the ordinary were central to Cromer’s approach. “Once you decide to do that, ordinariness becomes incredibly interesting. But only if you decide to own that from the beginning. You have to give up your ego or your need to be fascinating as an actor and director,” he says. “Because the play starts out in a very ordinary way and gets more extraordinary as the evening goes on. But Wilder was incredibly patient about how long he was going to make the audience wait.”
For the actors, it can be an almost terrifying experience, says Melinda Lopez, who plays George’s mother, Mrs. Gibbs, because the approach doesn’t allow them to dig into their bag of tricks.
“Actors are good liars. If you don’t feel it, you fake it. You cry into your hand or whatever,” she says. “But if the audience is sitting right next to you, you can’t do that.”
Cromer cast the Huntington production largely from the local acting pool. “It [is] an all-new cast, which meant I [had] to start over with why all these things had happened and why we were doing them,” he says. “So I’m in this struggle in rehearsal between what it used to be and what choices can be now — how to keep it fresh and alive without compromising the idea of the production.”
The play, Cromer says, “deals with realizing too late that time only goes in one direction, and it goes very quickly. And eternity is long, but life is a blip.” Still, he questions the notion that “Our Town” is solely about living life in the moment and seizing the day. It also acknowledges the futility of such endeavors.
“You’d go crazy if you treated everything and every moment like it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s impractical. Because then you’re not living your life,” he says. “There’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t center to ‘Our Town’ that doesn’t feel hellish to me, that simply says that things in life are both important and meaningless,” Cromer says.
“It’s this constant set of contradictions. It’s this constant battle. The Stage Manager says, ‘The strain’s so bad that every 16 hours, everybody lies down and gets a rest.’ Because you’re going to have to wake up and do it again tomorrow. And God damn tomorrow, and thank God for tomorrow.”