There’s been a lot of chatter on how David Cromer’s production of at the Huntington is somehow hard–a vacuum of the nostalgic hokeyness typically painted over Thornton Wilder’s text by high school drama teachers. And perhaps that’s true. If we get an extra coat of anything here, it’s irony and acerbity and metaness, mostly delivered by Cromer himself who’s come to town as a kind of traveling theatrical maestro, casting a whole slew of local actors for this local installation of his successful New York production. (It’s sort of a traveling one man show with a cast of at least twenty.) But Cromer didn’t arrive without a suitcase full of rural New Hampshire charm. All the warmth that, certainly more so than its modernist devices, has made Our Town the great American play is still there, tugging at heart strings and sucking water out through tear ducts. Even through the delightful and somewhat notorious third act, the play maintains a warm sense of humor that always seems to be there in the nick of time to cut through any melodrama. All in all, I’d call it funny and a little bit sad. Even death, at least for a few moments, is a happy place of calmness, comfort, and reunion.
Cromer puts his actors in what are probably their own contemporary clothes, turns the house lights up all the way, and doesn’t do more in terms of props and scenery than borrowing a couple spindle-backed chairs from the Huntington’s prop room. But, while Emily may not have a moon to look up at, the production isn’t completely spare of elements to enhance Wilder’s carefully articulated moments. During some of the play’s more poignant scenes, Hymns waft down from a BCA catwalk, where Grover’s Corners’ Schubertian choir director sits at a piano directing his small chorus. As drunk as he might be, they don’t sound too bad. Even behind Cromer’s extra layer of irony, all those practical declarations of love, small town details, and peeks into a future no happier and no sadder than Grover’s Corners’ present still spin the deepest emotion and drama out of the humble.
Cromer’s signature touch is a surprise dénouement that breaks down the pillars of Wilder’s temple to theatrical illusion. I usually don’t worry about dropping spoilers, but I really don’t want to ruin this one because it’s not just a plot twist. It’s a brilliant and perfectly executed artistic twist that disrupts our experience and enhances Emily’s metaphysical walk back into the world of the living, and into Wilder’s thesis on small town life (or life in general) that I can’t phrase all that well. All I can say is that I’d argue that Wilder was being a little darker than someone else’s description of him being warm and nostalgic. And that I’d also argue that he was being a little warmer than someone else’s cold and cynical description of Our Town‘s thesis.