We are all residents of Grover's Corners.
Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, first produced in 1938 and now onstage at the Rogue Theatre, claims us as citizens, right alongside the unremarkable population of this small New Hampshire town. Their troubles and their triumphs, modest as they may be, are our own.
Our Town is a straightforward, no-frills celebration of the ordinary. It is also a firm but gentle rebuke of our lack of consciousness about what an amazing miracle we all are, even in our ordinariness.
The script's simplicity is eloquent. It needs no complicated set, props or costumes. Director Joseph McGrath, who is also the artistic director of the Rogue, has executed a production true to Wilder's intent.
Grover's Corners in 1901 is populated with ordinary folks doing ordinary things. Homework. Delivering milk and newspapers. Bringing babies into the world. Saying goodbye to those leaving it.
There's Doc Gibbs and his family, and their neighbors, the Webbs. There's Howie the milkman and Simon Stimson, the choir director and—for just the right touch of irony—the town drunk. Simple, good folk.
But this isn't traditional theatrical storytelling. Wilder gives us snapshots and snippets which, when woven together, attempt to give us the Big Picture. The actors have to create a lot with little, and McGrath has gathered a solid cast, able to let us know who they are with just a smile, a stumble, a sigh.
The production begins with promise. As always, Rogue opens the evening with music, thoughtfully chosen and directed by Harlan Hokin. There's fiddle and flute and harp, creating traditional melodies. But most impressive is the traditional four-part harmony, a cappella selections known as sacred harp or fasola singing.
The folks at Rogue know that music coalesces, and the sacred harp harmonies, delivered with a raw and robust energy, stir us and make it almost impossible for us to resist citizenship in this humble place.
Wilder has given us a tour guide/philosopher in the character of the Stage Manager, capably rendered by Terry Erbe. He defines our locations and directs our focus as the characters play out their stories. He lets us know how much time has passed between scenes, and what has happened in the meantime. He even takes on a character or two.
The Stage Manager is really the engine that drives the play. Erbe's down-to-earth reading is honest and heartfelt. In the first act, he gets us oriented and sets up our expectations for what is to follow. We are sent off to the first of two intermissions, looking forward to the play's continued unfolding.
The pace of the first act has worked just fine—but a different kind of energy is needed in Act II, about youth and young love and hope and the fretful anticipation of married life.
Unfortunately, the act plods. What we witness—the courtship and wedding of young George Gibbs and Emily Webb—is earnest and sweet. But there is little of the youthful energy or brightness of spirit needed to carry us forward.
Generally, for a production to be effective—and the style of Our Town does not present an exception to this convention—we need to ride an arc which deposits us in a different place or state of mind. We need to move, to be moved. It's one thing to get there in measured steps; it's an entirely different experience to lock into the arc the playwright has crafted and ride it to the finish.
Pacing problems create other problems. By the time we return from the second intermission, our attention has been tested and disrupted—and the final section plods as well. It's easier to understand a slower pace and quieter energy for Wilder's beautiful finale, when the dead speak and strive to let go of what they now see are their unappreciated lives. But we feel more relief than revelation as our journey concludes.
Is the pacing deliberate? Does McGrath apply a heavy hand because of a lack of trust in Wilder's script or the ability of the audience to "get" it? Or, when I attended, was this simply a production still trying to find its footing?
Whatever the cause, the pacing provides the greatest challenge to embracing fully what is an otherwise lovely production of an American classic.