A New Look At “Our Town”

Ford’s aims to give the classic American play some contemporary relevance, starting with a British director and a multiracial cast.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Despite his credentials directing shows all over the world, Stephen Rayne might be seen as an odd choice to helm Ford’s Theatre’s 75th-anniversary production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For one thing, Rayne is British and Our Town is a quintessentially American drama. For another, he’s never seen the play. 

“I guess people will ask why on earth they’re getting an English director,” says Rayne. “But I’m very attracted to what Wilder wanted the play to be originally, which was one that spoke to people from all cultures across the world. He didn’t think he’d written a play about a small community in New England—he thought he’d written a play modeled on Greek drama.”

Rayne lives in London but travels so often for work that he moved to the suburb of Chiswick to be closer to Heathrow Airport. He’s directed shows in Washington regularly over the last four years, including The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare Theatre Company and the musical Parade at Ford’s. Most recently, he oversaw The Two Worlds of Charlie F., an original production using wounded soldiers as performers, in London’s West End.

Ford’s Our Town—January 25 through February 24—aims to give the 1938 play about the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, greater relevance for contemporary Washington. The majority of the cast is people of color, and the pivotal role of the Stage Manager, who acts as a narrator, is played by a younger African-American woman as opposed to the more common older white man. 

“If you look at a theater today, a stage manager won’t be a 60-year-old smoking a pipe,” says Rayne. “I’m trying to shift the play into the 21st century and have it speak to a modern audience.”

As for never having seen Our Town, he says: “I think if you see a production, it colors your perception. It’s like a new play to me, and I’m trying to treat it as such.”

Our Town. January 25 to February 24 at Ford’s Theatre. Tickets ($20 to $62) available online.

This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.