Life’s enchanted cup

Our Town at Trinity; BTW’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 7, 2007

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: Method in the gender-bending madness.

The buzz about Trinity Repertory Company’s Our Town has centered on its double-barreled depiction of community. Looking beyond the folksy life-and-death events that mark the turn-of-the-20th-century calendar in tiny Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, we watch cast and crew attend to costumes and make-up, loll around the green room, and otherwise live the ordinary daily lives of a Providence theater company putting on Our Town (through March 4). There is even a graveyard aspect to parallel that of Wilder’s iconic play, whose last act takes place among the placid departed: the bare-bones action of Our Town is set not on an “empty stage,” as per authorial decree, but before a Trinity Rep gallery of posters and photographs, many of whose subjects, members of the venerable troupe going back four decades, are dead. Whether this our-theater-our-town concept, which calls attention to its artifice through addition rather than subtraction, renders the play’s homespun yet tough-minded vision of the circle of life (as The Lion King would have it) less universal is a matter for debate. But it doesn’t get in the way of a tenderly funny, well-acted production that ought to have everyone buzzing about not its scenery but its Emily. Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium student Susannah Flood proves that this shirtwaist-clad all-American ingénue can steer both sides of the River Styx exuding breathless life and still be a little goofy.

Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning 1938 account of life, love, and death in a sleepy New England hamlet circa 1901–1913 is less sentimental than it at first appears. Dry-eyed precursory obits for several of the characters appear in the Stage Manager’s opening remarks, and the play ends not in some Protestant Republican heaven but in a purgatory whose plain-spoken citizens, alert in straight-back chairs, are torn between relief at being well out of this mortal coil and gauzy regret at not having appreciated life — moment by moment — while it was unfolding at its petty pace in the vast scheme of things. At the same time that Our Town shows its various citizens wrestling with homework, stringing beans, or wishing for a trip to Paris, France (“where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to”), the playwright anticipates Beckett, where Man is born “astride of a grave.” The difference is that Beckett’s folks, equally preoccupied by the everyday, have a bleaker time before falling in.

I admit that I find the decision of director Brian McEleney and set designer Michael McGarty to adhere to the playwright’s blueprint for a stripped-down Grover’s Corners while supplying an elaborately realistic backdrop a tad perverse. Even the numerous television productions of the landmark work have respected the writer’s minimalist conception! But McEleney understands the play, which Wilder describes as “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life,” and he doesn’t sentimentalize it. He arrays it nicely on the two-level set (whose choreographic opportunities do outstrip those of the playwright’s flat floor with a couple of stepladders), with an on-stage Foley artist to add droll sound effects (as when, in the soda-fountain scene, every plop of imaginary ice cream and spritz of unseen seltzer is perfectly voiced). Most important, McEleney deploys a terrific Trinity ensemble in a production that expertly balances elegy, bursting emotion, and wry humor. The director even throws in a little Runaway Bride farce on the brink of the wedding of agriculturally inclined George Gibbs to his temporarily panicking teenage bride, Emily Webb, who has to be cheerily dragged downstairs as if she were a sack of feed, rather than a helpmeet, for the future farmer.

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