The third act of Ford’s Theatre’s production of Our Town, playing through February 24, is visually and emotionally bracing—a blast of cool air in an otherwise close environment. I won’t ruin the surprise, but director Stephen Rayne and set designer Tony Cisek manage to achieve a quite startling transformation behind the curtain, and the effect is invigorating.
Thornton Wilder’s play about existential questions explored through the prism of small-town New Hampshire turns 75 today, and is apparently still as popular as ever. In this anniversary production at Ford’s, Rayne—who told The Washingtonian he’d never seen a production of Our Town before staging his own—has attempted to give the show a fresh, contemporary perspective. While this production’s creative elements are clever (the use of mime, choreographed by Happenstance Theater’s Mark Jaster, is particularly effective in creating vivid scenes out of little more than a handful of white chairs) the power of the third act comes a little too late to temper the show’s folksiness.
In Wilder’s meta-theatrical universe, the stage manager acts as a Charon of sorts, introducing Grover’s Corners, spouting facts about the place (4 percent of its 2,000 or so residents are Socialists, and only a handful are drunks), and ferrying the actors and the audience between different times and scenes. Typically played by an older white man, Raynes has cast the mononymous African-American actress Portia in the role, aiming to reflect a more contemporary America. It’s an interesting tweak, but the possibilities brought up by it—and by the rest of Raynes’s colorblind casting—are never fully explored.
Grover’s Corners embodies golden-age Americana, at least until the final act, which is possibly why the play remains so popular. Young teenagers George Gibbs (Nickolas Vaughan) and Emily Webb (Alyssa Gagarin) have a sweet courtship involving strawberry sodas and stargazing before they marry at 17, Doc Gibbs (James Konicek) tends to the town selflessly, the milk is delivered by horse, and nobody locks their doors at night. The lone dark—and surprisingly funny—note is Tom Story as Simon Stimson, a histrionic choirmaster who’s also one of the few town drunkards.
Wilder’s characters are fairly insipid, despite their universal goodness. Mrs. Gibbs (Jenn Walker) just wants her husband to take a vacation, while the only less-than-idealized character is Erin Driscoll’s town gossip. With the exception of the stage manager, the characters are outfitted by designer Kate Turner-Walker in Quaker-like long clothes in dove gray, which only serve to undermine their individual characteristics (Portia wears a black sweatsuit, which feels glaringly modern by comparison). The deepest element at play in act one is Konicek’s booming speaking voice, which has a really lovely timbre to it.
The nostalgic appeal of Grover’s Corners is undercut by the tremendously effective final act, in which it all becomes clear that death is the epilogue not even the stage manager can cut. Cisek’s Escher-like set provides a sweeping sense of the inevitability of it all, while the characters now feel spookily robotic and otherwordly. It’s a powerful end to a play that Wilder wanted to be deeply philosophical, but it feels at odds with the Hallmark-movie idealism of the first two acts. Seventy-five years after the play first debuted, America is an impossibly different place. Rayne’s casting reflects that fact, but the rest of the play feels irretrievably out of touch.
Still, Our Town is handsomely staged, and its cast is effective especially in the moody, romantic scenes in which they sing in unison. A funeral sequence towards the play’s end is beautifully creative, and the sound effects—created by the actor themselves—are evocative. In Grover’s Corners, theater is a time capsule, preserving the hopes and dreams and silly schemes of people living over a century ago. It’s just hard not to wish it had more insight to offer a 2013 audience.
Our Town is at Ford’s Theatre through February 24. Running time is about two and a half hours, with two intermissions. Tickets ($20 to $62) are available via the theater’s website.