Wednesday, October 20, 2010
SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY presents Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.
I saw OUR TOWN in the highly celebrated off-Broadway production in New York earlier this year directed by David Cromer (closed September 12th after 566 performances - a record, at the 199 seat Barrow Street Theatre). A few years ago I saw a production by Lee Lewis at the NEW THEATRE . It has been a part of my consciousness from my early youth. So, sitting in the Drama Theatre the other night I wondered what would my experience be.
The scale of the New York production gave the appearance of a community theatre version in the equivalent of a local School of Arts, it even had a large cast of 21 or so. That the Sydney Theatre Company production was prepared for a distancing, letter box shaped, proscenium arch and an obvious theatre design, no matter how understated, the lighting gave it away, and a much smaller cast of only 14 actors, was, initially disorienting. Theatrical, in contrast, to the realism of the other. But within minutes of the disarming simplicity of the opening of the Stage Manger’s (Darren Gilshenan) conversation with us, I was comfortably, warmly present. This is indeed a great play. No matter the number of times I have seen it or however recent it was, it still has that ability to create the ever elusive quality that we long for: ‘magic’. Transcendent belief occurs.
Thornton Wilder, in the old Penguin edition (1958) of a collection of three of his full length plays: OUR TOWN; THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH; THE MATCHMAKER tells us, “OUR TOWN is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante’s PURGATORY). It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and space. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are ‘hundreds’, ‘thousands’ and ‘millions’. Emily’s joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents – what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living, and who will live? Each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. And here the method of staging finds its justification –in the first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables; but when she revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birthday, the very chair and table are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind –not in things, not in ’scenery’. Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”
“It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The minute daily ordinariness is the drama of this play. The recognition is so easy and the task that Mr Wilder gives us by stripping his stage of scenery and props, is, for us to fill in the novelistic details with our own imaginations, our own memories, our own lives. In every seat in the theatre there is a different Our Town flashing in each individual theatre-goers mind (if you are there of your own volition, I supposed.) The daily rise, the daily footfall of the denizens of the town, milkman and paper boy, the church going, the choir practice, the baseball games, the town drunk, the town gossip and other eccentrics, the familiar marriage games of give and take between the sexes, the birthdays, the milk shop sundae, the courting, the weddings and ultimately the dying, the graveyard, the cycle of our ordinary lives are given to us by the delicate threading of the Stage Manager to embroider a cloth that becomes a portrait of our town. My life, your life, everybody’s life in all times.
Mr Wilder takes us on an exploration of the “cosmic in the commonplace”.
One of my indelible memories of this play from a production way, way back in my life, maybe the Genesian Theatre in the sixties, is of the crowd/procession of large, unfurled, black umbrellas at the funeral in Act three. The ominous beauty strikes such a welling of compassion and sorrow for the frailties of the human condition that the soul is forever touched. Still and forever. In this production the grouping arranged by the Director, Iain Sinclair recaptures that discovery. That Mr Sinclair and , indeed, Mr Cromer of the recent American production, take liberties with the staging of this last great act by creating a coup de theatre, (against the instructions of Mr Wilder as per the above paragraph) in introducing a fully composed set (Pip Runciman) and costume design (Jennifer Irwin) of an early twentieth century household, on Emily’s requested visit as a spirit to her parents house, is forgivable, in that the interpolation has necessary chutzpah (!), that creates great emotional wallops of impact and does not blur the intended experience of Mr Wilder, if not, otherwise, over complicating it (Mr Cromer’s version wins, for it also had the smell of coffee and bacon and eggs- aromatic impulses that further flooded the memory tunnels). Both productions have made other re-writings, some less or more successful, depending on one’s prejudices.
The company of actors led indefatigably by Mr Gilshenan are an ensemble of equal vision and effort. A lot of these actors have appeared in other work by Mr Sinclair and the company feel of trust in each other and the director was palpable. I loved the Mrs Soames of Toni Scanlan, the steadiness and subtlety of Christopher Stollery’s Dr. Gibbs and the journey of Maeve Dermody as Emily Webb particularly. Ms Dermody, who I have seen in other work directed by Mr Sinclair seems to have found a confident space to expand her instincts in in the Drama Theatre. It worked seductively and convincingly.
The lighting of Mr Schlieper was sometimes a tad to orange/warm but illustrative and supportive of the production. Steve Toulimin acting as a period ‘foley’ sound artist in the wings captured a sense of playful invention that supported the score of Paul Charlier.
All of this work under the intelligent, considered and faithful vision and guidance by Mr Sinclair gives OUR TOWN the great respect it deserves to breathe and reveal the qualities that make it a classic of the American theatre, if not world theatre. It is a Pulitzer Prize Winner. If only the production team working on Eugene O’Neill’s A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT had been as trustful earlier in the season. Mr Sinclair has developed a reputation for his dramaturgical rigour with the writers he works with, and the quality of the work he produces as must see theatre is proof of the dedication (THE SEED, BEYOND THE NECK, KILLER JOE, HURLY BURLY, LORD OF THE FLIES).
James Waites regards TOT MUM as the chronological closure to the great arc of American theatre in The Sydney Theatre Company’s season this year but I count it as an Australian text, hybrid it may be. Sam Shepard’s TRUE WEST will be the book end clincher for me. I have high expectations of it.