You're not near enough to smell the alcohol on the tippling choirmaster's breath. But in David Cromer's close and much-lauded staging of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which the Huntington Theatre Company is presenting at the Calderwood Pavilion, you sniff the astringency as acutely as you do the sweetness of life lived — briskly, without a hint of folksiness — in early-20th-century Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. Cromer won a 2009 Obie for his direction of the Off Broadway production, whose more than 600 performances constituted the longest run in the 1938 Pulitzer-winning play's history. He also played — and plays here — the Stage Manager. For its Boston outing, Cromer's breezy modern-dress staging, which updates Wilder's metatheatrics without altering his text, is crammed into the Roberts Studio with the audience snugly wrapped around three quarters of the playing space. The fourth side is reserved for a third-act coup that will startlingly drive home how less than vividly we experience our lives as we bustle and bicker through them.
When you think about it, Beckett has little on Wilder when it comes to portraying our being born "astride of a grave." Moreover, in Cromer's staging, the denizens of Grover's Corners are presented in operating-room-like surrounds. Both playing space and audience are, for much of the play, bathed in harsh white light that dims when the Stage Manager takes us to the town cemetery, with its breathtaking mountain views and time at last to relax. As our tour guide observes of taxing, if precious, human existence, "The strain's so bad that every 16 hours everybody lies down and gets a rest."
So why, apart from the horsedrawn milkman, the housewifely bean stringing, and the G-rated young lovers sipping their ice-cream sodas, do we think of Our Town as such a sentimental valentine? Wilder portrays life as a gift and a chore, and Cromer's no-nonsense staging captures both halves of that equation. Families bark at one another; the unhappy town drunk is quietly intimidated; chauvinism and tyranny, as well as earnest wonder and politeness, abound. And we are never far from that impassive gathering on cemetery hill. The Stage Manager puts even his endorsement of matrimony morbidly: "Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married."
But don't get depressed! Parts of the production — especially the terrified courtship and merger of heroic youngsters George Gibbs and Emily Webb, sincerely rendered by Cromer recidivist Derrick Trumbly and a placidly luminous Therese Plaehn — are irrepressibly touching. The cast is mostly local (Cromer will be replaced by Joel Colodner from December 31), and all of the actors are credible. It is not in the nature of the production, however, to burst with emotion. It demonstrates instead how little we allow ourselves to feel while going about our business — business that may have changed over the last hundred years, but without rebooting human nature. ^
OUR TOWN::Huntington Theatre Company at Calderwood Pavilion :: Through January 26 :: $25-$105; $15 students :: 617.266.0800 or huntingtontheatre.org