Huntington Theatre Company Delivers Darkly Brilliant ‘Our Town’ (Five Stars)

“Our Town”, presented in three acts by the Huntington Theater Company at the Calderwood Pavillion at the BCA 537 Tremont St., Boston. Written by Thornton Wilder; Directed by David Cromer; Extended through January 26th.

On its surface, “Our Town” may be about the ordinariness of small town life in turn-of-the-century New Hampshire, but those familiar with this play know that it is about so much more than that, as the current Huntington Theatre Company production so clearly demonstrates. Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the iconic work that seems to be the staple of so many high school drama club productions (it’s the country’s most produced play), the themes run a lot deeper than a celebration of homespun goodness than you would remember. In fact, when I asked my companion (who like me is not a particularly seasoned theatergoer, and also like me hadn’t read it since high school) to remind me what the play was about. “I think it’s about death,” she said. And since death is just a logical and inescapable conclusion to life – whether exciting or boring – it most certainly is about living and dying.

Ostensibly, the play is about two families, the Webbs and the Gibbs’, and the relationship between their teen sweethearts George and Emily, who grow up next door to each other in the town of Grover’s Corners. Emily is the daughter of a newspaper editor Charles Webb and is the brightest kid in class. George (Derrick Trumbly) is the son of Dr. Gibbs (Craig Mathers), and is less academically inclined (but a hell of a baseball player) and wants to be a farmer. The kid’s moms (Stacy Fischer as Mrs. Webb and the always terrific Melinda Lopez as Mrs. Gibbs) raise them and their siblings, and run the household, because well, it’s 1901. The cast and setting is introduced by the omniscient Stage Manager (David Cromer, who also directed) who describes the physical setting and the relationships of characters to one another.

The first act essentially establishes the setting and the characters relationship to each other and paints Grovers Corners as the Hallmark Channel might imagine small town America; By the second act (which chronicles George and Emily’s teen flirtations as they bloom into marriage) we start to see some of the less sentimental aspects of small town life, ones that you’re unlikely to see depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting as the all-too-human themes like drunkenness, rage and disappointment begin to emerge; and the stunning third scene shows what life may be like after all is said and done, and how those watching might want to start paying attention to there own lives as they’re unfolding. Now.

The sets are spare, practically non-existent, save for some tables and chairs signifying the kitchens of the two households. The cast mimes most all of their props (including spoons, drinking glasses) except a few books and a baseball glove. And although the play is set at the turn of the century, there are no costumes or props to indicate that. Characters wear clothes that look like what they probably wore on the way to the show, and although the dialogue sounds period appropriate, there are no attempts at hokey readings by the talented cast. Director Cromer also makes great use of every speck of space in the 250 seat Caldwell Pavillion and much of the action is played within inches of the audience (which does NOT mean it is interactive). As a result, the Huntington Theatre Company (they don’t like us to shorten it to ‘Huntington’) warns that there is no late seating and no reentry during the performance. Patrons who arrive after the performance begins will be seated at the end of Act 1 and patrons who leave during the performance can only be reseated at the start of the next act. The music for the show is also spare and sometimes disconcerting and disturbing. It sounds more like what’s heard in a Twilight Zone episode than warm or sentimental filler.

This is a brilliant production put together by Cromer, one that has received glowing reviews since he first envisioned this presentation in 2009 in Chicago, before running it Off Broadway for 600 performances. The Huntington Theatre Company’s production has a nearly all Boston cast (29 of the 32 performers are based here) which is no knock, as they are uniformly solid. But this is one show where the production is truly greater than any one performance. Don’t miss this show if you love theater, and if you’re not a regular theatergoer, this is a great place to start on your journey.

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