The thing about Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Our Town,” is that he really wanted it to be your town. To that end, he stripped his stage bare. “When the theatre pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal,” he wrote in his preface to the play, “it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.” The houses of Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Webb are suggested by a pair of vine-and-flower-covered trellises. (“There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager explains.) For the rest, you’re encouraged to use your imagination.
Obie winner David Cromer has certainly used his imagination in his staging of “Our Town,” which ran off-Broadway for more than 600 performances and is now being presented by the Huntington Theatre Company in the intimate, 250-seat Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. The 32 performers — 29 of whom are local Boston actors — weave among the audience members, making us in effect silent residents of Wilder’s fictional Grover’s Corners, N.H. And though the three acts of “Our Town” are set in 1901, 1904, and 1913, the performers wear what look like their own clothes. Cromer’s goal is to dispel the nostalgia that has settled on productions of the play and shine a light on what he calls Wilder’s “observation of the facts of human existence, of human behavior from a very objective point of view.”
At the Roberts Studio Theatre, he succeeds — almost too well. There’s no want of human misery in “Our Town.” Joe Crowell dies in World War I; Mrs. Gibbs dies of pneumonia while visiting her daughter; Wally Webb dies of a burst appendix; Emily Webb dies in childbirth; Simon Stimson hangs himself. There’s not much art or culture in Grover’s Corners, and if, as Mr. Webb tells us, 90 percent of the young people stick around after graduating from high school, maybe they just don’t know any better.
Certainly the theater feels as if that 90 percent had all gathered there. The audience is packed in on three sides of the long, narrow playing space, with a black curtain as the fourth side and a loft for the choir above. The set consists of two wooden dining tables with chairs, one for the Webbs and one for the Gibbses. For the scene in which George Gibbs and Emily call out to each other from their bedroom windows, the actors sit on chairs that have been placed atop the tables; it’s an effective substitute for the ladders that Wilder prescribed. In the last act, as the now-dead Emily tries to revisit her 12th birthday, the black curtain is drawn and the Webb kitchen, dimly lit, appears in loving detail.
Cromer himself plays the Stage Manager (through Dec. 30; Joel Colodner takes over the role thereafter); he comes out with an iPhone and a yellow pad of paper and talks to the audience as nonchalantly as if he were giving a tour. And at first the acting is so casual, it’s almost bereft of human emotion. The parents — Melinda Lopez as Mrs. Gibbs, Craig Mathers as her husband, Christopher Tarjan as Mr. Webb, and Stacy Fischer as his wife — initially seem too young and callow, but an engaging weariness creeps into their bones in the course of the production’s two hours and 10 minutes. Derrick Trumbly as George also starts a little stiffly, but he develops into a jock with feelings, and the courage to express them. And Therese Plaehn’s affecting Emily is a woman one moment, a little girl the next — especially on her wedding day. Her eyes pop when she hears that George will have his Uncle Luke’s house; then she cries when she has to tell him how conceited he’s become.
This production aspires to Wilder’s “realer thing” and achieves it. But the beauty of the play has always been that it exists in the eyes of its beholders. If Cromer wants to see “Our Town” as the bearer of stark truths, well, that’s his prerogative. And if, like Mrs. Gibbs and Emily, you want to smell the heliotrope in the moonlight, that’s yours.