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Theatre Review (LA): Our Town directed by David Cromer at the Broad Stage

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The Broad Stage has brought director David Cromer’s revisionist production of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town to California after successful runs, first in Chicago, and more recently in New York. Critics and audiences alike have responded as if they have forgotten just how good Thornton Wilder was as a writer. I was surprised to talk to many people opening night who “confessed” that they had never seen or read the play. I’ve been told that this masterpiece has been relegated to high schools and community theatres, though I remember a rather good production of the play a few years back by the Interact Theatre Company.

What Cromer has done is stage the show amidst the audience. The whole theatre is transformed into the little New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners so the audience becomes entwined in the story of the town. This is achieved by a very modern and realistic approach to the acting. No New England accents here or quaint clothes from the early part of the century. Cromer has stripped the play to its bare essentials with a minimum of “scenery,” just two tables and a bunch of chairs, and an “organ” that is really just a piano strategically placed in the balcony.

For the most part Cromer’s approach is effective, though I have always found the text effective despite the accusations of sentimentality. I think sentiment has a place in the theatre. All you need to see is the always-touching scene between George and Emily when they declare their interest in each other.

Speaking of George, the actor James McMenamin brings a fresh and quirky approach to the role. His George is not romanticized but just your average gawky kid. Emily (Jennifer Grace) is less successful mainly because she is just too old for the role. I liked the Gibbses and the Webb parents very much, especially Lori Meyers as Mrs. Gibbs. When she hollers at her kids it rings true.

Another bold step in this production is to have Helen Hunt play the narrator. She is strong and straightforward and, because she is such a good actress, very believable in the part. What didn’t work for me is that there seemed to be no apparent reason that she had to tell the story and bury the play along with the bible in the new bank’s cornerstone. Without a compelling reason, the play lacks a certain punch and the audience is left to fend for themselves. Perhaps this is Cromer’s intention. In any case go see Our Town for yourself. It plays at the Broad until February 18.

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