There’s an old theater adage that Thornton Wilder’s revered, Pulitzer-winning drama “Our Town” is performed at least once every day somewhere in the world. The play is a modest tableau of life, love and death in small town America, and since its debut in 1938, Wilder’s words have almost become gospel: Don’t mess around with it, and it won’t let you down.
Interplayers Theatre, which premieres its interpretation of “Our Town” this Thursday, has made just one change to Wilder’s original text – they’ve cut out a single word: many.
It occurs right at the top of the play, when the Stage Manager, an omniscient narrator who walks us through the story, is introducing the cast to the audience. “He says, ‘In this play, you will see this actor and this actress, and many others,’ ” said Michael Weaver, the show’s director. “In our production, he’s just going to say, ‘This actor, that actor, and others.’ Other than that, it is exactly Wilder’s text.”
But that one-word omission isn’t the only alteration Interplayers has made to Wilder’s original vision: They’ve taken the play’s 32 major roles and have assigned them to a cast of only eight actors, including Patrick Treadway as the Stage Manager. It’s a drastic revision to say the least, and the show’s journey from conception to production took nearly three years.
The idea began when Reed McColm, Interplayers’ artistic director, heard a rumor about a production of Wilder’s magnum opus in which the cast had been whittled down to six people. “That’s the only way we could do ‘Our Town’ at Interplayers,” McColm said. “We couldn’t even fit everybody backstage if there were three dozen actors. I really wanted to know how it had been adapted.”
His search eventually led him to Wilder’s estate, which informed McColm that they had never officially sanctioned such a production. But, much to his surprise, they were open to the idea of a reduced “Our Town” cast and suggested McColm submit his own treatment. There were, however, a few conditions: “The estate didn’t want me to change anything,” McColm said. “They didn’t want me to change a line of dialogue and wanted all the characters retained.”
That proved to be a challenge, but McColm was dogged in his vision, and he continued working with the Thornton Wilder estate over the next two and a half years until they deemed his adaptation suitable. “They really do care about the piece, and as soon as I proved that I did, too, the closer our collaboration became,” McColm said. “I ended up studying ‘Our Town’ as closely as if I had written it myself.”
Although it’s become a staple of high school drama and literature classes, “Our Town” was radical at the time of its release. Wilder was reportedly restless with the tired state of live theater, and with his simple story of the fictional hamlet of Grover’s Corners, N.H., he boils the medium down to its most essential parts. Wilder even lays bare the play’s primary themes in the titles he gives its three acts – “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Eternity.”
Everything about the show is minimalist, from the sets – beyond some tables and chairs, there’s barely any stage decoration – to its lack of physical props, all of which are pantomimed by the actors. Even the characters are types, human variables that could be plugged into just about any equation.
“If it had been fully costumed and the sets fully built and with all the props, would the audience have heard the message or would it have been just another play?” Weaver said. “And I think that probably woke the audience up in a way where they thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought about theater like this,’ followed by, ‘I’ve never really thought about life like this.’ ”
The emotional thrust of the play is in the relationship between Emily Webb and George Gibbs, whom we meet as teenagers and follow into adulthood. But Wilder’s fascination lies in the day-to-day details of life in Grover’s Corner (“This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying”), how the townsfolk interact and grow with one another, and he treats the milkman and the paperboy and the undertaker with the same importance as his main characters.
Wilder’s boldest stroke is the aforementioned Stage Manager, who all but demolishes the fourth wall. He provides running commentary throughout the show; he addresses the audience directly; he dictates the time, location and action of the story; he transforms himself into various supporting characters whenever a stand-in is necessary. He’s even aware that he’s part of a play: At one point, he suggests that a manuscript copy of “Our Town” be included in the Grover’s Corners time capsule.
The Stage Manager is an obvious personification of the very artificiality of theater and of Wilder’s authorial control over his characters, and it’s a streak of postmodern mischief running through an otherwise traditional small town story. “Wilder was brave in having the Stage Manager character be so open about the artifice,” McColm said, “and then stripping away the artifice and actually coming up with something profound in the illusion.”
It’s a role that has become a touchstone in American theater, and has been performed by a number of noted actors, including Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Hal Holbrook, Spalding Gray and Helen Hunt.
In keeping with Wilder’s transparent theatrical devices, Weaver and McColm never cover up the fact that their actors are playing multiple roles, and they’ve actually woven the conceit into the fabric of the show. “If an actor is onstage and is about to become another character, he has a costume piece that he puts on in view of the audience,” he said. “The characters morph right in front of you.” It’s an approach that Wilder would have no doubt approved of, and McColm believes that it could (if the Wilder estate allows it) inspire smaller theatrical companies to tackle their own productions.
There’s something to be said about a play that’s still inspiring reinterpretations 75 years after its initial publication, and “Our Town,” despite being a period piece, considers themes that will always be universal and confronts truths that will always elude us.
“It’s about why we’re alive, why we live and how we interact with other people and how we deal with ourselves,” Weaver said. “I think that is such a powerful statement – and kind of a scary statement to make in some cases – and I can’t think of another play that does that. Others have tried, but Wilder somehow just went straight to the bull’s-eye, and I think that’s why the play endures.”
McColm points to a line in the final act that he believes encapsulates what Wilder was trying to convey: “Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”
“That’s the journey for both the actors and the audience, to come out of that theater feeling like a little piece of you is clearer for having been there, and what a gift,” he said. “Not many works of art can claim to do that, but this one does.”