Ain't that America

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  February 7, 2007
nager only in the playscript) is the senior member of the company, Barbara Meek, and she ’fesses up to being so right off the bat. The assembled actors also introduce themselves by their own names. As we take our seats, we watch them milling about a dressing room that set designer Michael McGarty places on a level above the stage. They dress, they chat, they play cards while waiting with us for the play to begin.
 
We go back to 1901, initially, to a typical New England town five years before the first rattling Model A started scattering chickens. Old Howie Newsome (Joe Wilson Jr.) trudges along delivering milk with his horse Bessie, and Simon Stimson (Stephen Berenson) serves as church choir director and embittered town drunk. The two families we are most concerned about are headed by Frank Gibbs (Fred Sullivan Jr.), the town doctor, and Charles Webb (Mauro Hantman), editor of the weekly newspaper.
 
The artistry of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner is in pretending to remove artifice. Period costumes are worn in most productions, as here, but props are imagined by us and the actors, who pantomime actions, such as elaborate breakfast preparations. Wilder’s cleverness was to make us watch ourselves sip the LSD-spiked ice cream sodas with the actors in this mutually agreed-upon hallucination called theater. As long as we remain trustful, we will follow them anywhere.
 
But the bold part is that we’re not agreeing to learn about Grovers Corners, population 2640 (no, 2642 after Mrs. Goruslawski has twins up in Polishtown), since we know that the town is mythical. The playwright and actors want to help us understand nothing less than Life & Death. And how fraught with pretentiousness is that?
 
Trinity Rep does the usual wonders in not allowing that question to occur to us at all until, perhaps, afterward. We are quickly swept up in the lives of next-door neighbor teenagers Emily Webb (Susannah Flood) and George Gibbs (Eric Murdoch) and their budding romance. The two actors are third-year MFA students at the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium, the company’s perpetual font of ingénues. Both are not only adept actors and present the fresh-faced innocence needed in the roles, but they also brightly represent Trinity continuity. The back wall of the stage level is covered with dozens of black-and-white photographs from company archives, and at one point in the play the faces of nearly a dozen deceased members are illuminated.
 
Even more than with the eventual, inevitable marriage of the youngsters, an earlier scene with George and Emily is bursting with Life. About to enter their senior year of high school, Emily is avoiding George, annoyed that he has become “stuck up” (and subconsciously furious that he has been paying her less attention). Flood does an especially convincing job of conveying mixed emotions and the violent but muffled mood swings of adolescence. Wilder not only has them reconcile — at a soda shop, of all treacly places — but also has both realize how important they are to each other.
 
Much of the perceived honesty of the play back in the war-torn ’30s came out of the closing section being set in a graveyard, with characters sitting in chairs that represent tombstones. Wilder makes a plausible case that the dead would be tormented rather than comforted by going back among the living. The bitter diatribe of a misanthropic suicide is balanced by someone tut-tutting, "That ain’t the whole truth and you know it."
 
As another talented playwright once pointed out, we are all strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage. With Our Town, Wilder argued that doing so with open hearts is the bravest and most honest method. Trinity Repertory Company is showing how such an out-of-fashion attitude can look smart in a necessarily cynical age.
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