Performance diary: OUR TOWN

June 26, 2010


June 23 –
My friend Tom Dennison (above) loves to see shows repeatedly. He gets on a kick and goes back again and again, bringing friends, spreading the word, spreading the love. He was a huge fan of Spring Awakening and saw it 7 seven times in the last few months of its Broadway run. Some of his favorite movies ever are Shortbus and Lars and the Real Girl, and he’s turned several dozen of his friends onto them. His latest theatrical fixation is David Cromer’s production of OUR TOWN – he’s seen it six or seven times and recently corraled a posse of friends into going again, including Andy, who’s never seen or read the play before. I decided to tag along at the last minute and had a good time, a surprisingly emotional time. Cromer’s production is so devastatingly dry and pitiless – the emotional impact is inversely proportionate to the emotional expressiveness of the actors. I had such a strong reaction the first time I saw the production that my feelings came lunging back as soon as the show began. Especially seeing James McMenamin, the young actor who plays George Gibbs. He is responsible for the heart-ripping last moment of the production, so seeing him again I knew where he was headed and found myself on the edge of tears watching him in the earlier scenes of the play. The Stage Manager is now being played by Michael McKean, who’s very good – not quite as dry and brusque as David Cromer was originally…in a certain way, he seems more poetic, like some Irish poet, or an overgrown version of Tom in The Glass Menagerie. But I liked his performance very much, and for some reason was especially attentive and struck by the third act: his speech about eternity hit me in a way it never had before, and this time I got the sense that the Stage Manager has been speaking to us from the graveyard the whole time. I didn’t quite get it until this time because I was sitting in a seat where I could see his face and see that he was in the same thoughtful timeless placeless space as the dead characters.

This time, too, I was extremely aware of how much my experience of Our Town is inextricably bound up with the Wooster Group’s version of it, embedded in their controversial but nevertheless brilliant 1980 production ROUTE 1 & 9. That production juxtaposed scenes from Our Town (presented on video in black-and-white close-ups as if it were a soap opera) with a Pigmeat Markham vaudeville routine, performed by the same actors live in blackface. And the Stage Manager role was played on video by Ron Vawter, replicating an educational television lecture by literary scholar Clifton Fadiman, who explicates the themes of the play in a way that’s undeniably astute but also slightly risible in its obviousness. But I will apparently always remember the way Ron/Fadiman highlighted certain lines in the play: “Why, Julia Hersey: French toast!” and “The moonlight is so terrible!” Anytime I think of Ron Vawter, I feel pangs of great joy and great sorrow. One more doorway into the bottomless pit of AIDS grief….

Besides the famous third-act coup de theatre, one of the best things about Cromer’s production is that you spend the whole time looking at other people in the audience, the other citizens of Our Town. At this show in the front row was a young black woman wearing a black t-shirt that said in big bold letters, “Do I Look Like a FUCKING People Person?”

It was fun to revisit OUR TOWN with our gang (above: Andy, Scott, Tom, me and my Andy) and talk about the play afterwards sitting on the patio at Tanti Baci sharing pasta and a good bottle of Super Tuscan. Oh, and I guess everybody knows by now that Helen Hunt will be taking over the role of Stage Manager in a couple of weeks, and then David Cromer will come back for two weeks just before the production finally closes after almost two years.

JUNE 23 – MY FRIEND TOM DENNISON LOVES TO SEE SHOWS REPEATEDLY. HE GETS ON A KICK AND GOES BACK AGAIN AND AGAIN, BRINGING FRIENDS, SPREADING THE WORD, SPREADING THE LOVE. HE WAS A HUGE FAN OF SPRING AWAKENING AND SAW IT 7 SEVEN TIMES IN THE LAST FEW MONTHS OF ITS BROADWAY RUN. SOME OF HIS FAVORITE MOVIES EVER ARE SHORTBUS AND LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, AND HE’S TURNED SEVERAL DOZEN OF HIS FRIENDS ONTO THEM. HIS LATEST THEATRICAL FIXATION IS DAVID CROMER’S PRODUCTION OF OUR TOWN – HE’S SEEN IT SIX OR SEVEN TIMES AND RECENTLY CORRALED A POSSE OF FRIENDS INTO GOING AGAIN, INCLUDING ANDY, WHO’S NEVER SEEN OR READ THE PLAY BEFORE. I DECIDED TO TAG ALONG AT THE LAST MINUTE AND HAD A GOOD TIME, A SURPRISINGLY EMOTIONAL TIME. CROMER’S PRODUCTION IS SO DEVASTATINGLY DRY AND PITILESS – THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT IS INVERSELY PROPORTIONATE TO THE EMOTIONAL EXPRESSIVENESS OF THE ACTORS. I HAD SUCH A STRONG REACTION THE FIRST TIME I SAW THE PRODUCTION THAT MY FEELINGS CAME LUNGING BACK AS SOON AS THE SHOW BEGAN. ESPECIALLY SEEING JAMES MCMENAMIN, THE YOUNG ACTOR WHO PLAYS GEORGE GIBBS. HE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE HEART-RIPPING LAST MOMENT OF THE PRODUCTION, SO SEEING HIM AGAIN I KNEW WHERE HE WAS HEADED AND FOUND MYSELF ON THE EDGE OF TEARS WATCHING HIM IN THE EARLIER SCENES OF THE PLAY. THE STAGE MANAGER IS NOW BEING PLAYED BY MICHAEL MCKEAN, WHO’S VERY GOOD – NOT QUITE AS DRY AND BRUSQUE AS DAVID CROMER WAS ORIGINALLY…IN A CERTAIN WAY, HE SEEMS MORE POETIC, LIKE SOME IRISH POET, OR AN OVERGROWN VERSION OF TOM IN THE GLASS MENAGERIE. BUT I LIKED HIS PERFORMANCE VERY MUCH, AND FOR SOME REASON WAS ESPECIALLY ATTENTIVE AND STRUCK BY THE THIRD ACT: HIS SPEECH ABOUT ETERNITY HIT ME IN A WAY IT NEVER HAD BEFORE, AND THIS TIME I GOT THE SENSE THAT THE STAGE MANAGER HAS BEEN SPEAKING TO US FROM THE GRAVEYARD THE WHOLE TIME. I DIDN’T QUITE GET IT UNTIL THIS TIME BECAUSE I WAS SITTING IN A SEAT WHERE I COULD SEE HIS FACE AND SEE THAT HE WAS IN THE SAME THOUGHTFUL TIMELESS PLACELESS SPACE AS THE DEAD CHARACTERS.

THIS TIME, TOO, I WAS EXTREMELY AWARE OF HOW MUCH MY EXPERIENCE OF OUR TOWN IS INEXTRICABLY BOUND UP WITH THE WOOSTER GROUP’S VERSION OF IT, EMBEDDED IN THEIR CONTROVERSIAL BUT NEVERTHELESS BRILLIANT 1980 PRODUCTION ROUTE 1 & 9. THAT PRODUCTION JUXTAPOSED SCENES FROM OUR TOWN (PRESENTED ON VIDEO IN BLACK-AND-WHITE CLOSE-UPS AS IF IT WERE A SOAP OPERA) WITH A PIGMEAT MARKHAM VAUDEVILLE ROUTINE, PERFORMED BY THE SAME ACTORS LIVE IN BLACKFACE. AND THE STAGE MANAGER ROLE WAS PLAYED ON VIDEO BY RON VAWTER, REPLICATING AN EDUCATIONAL TELEVISION LECTURE BY LITERARY SCHOLAR CLIFTON FADIMAN, WHO EXPLICATES THE THEMES OF THE PLAY IN A WAY THAT’S UNDENIABLY ASTUTE BUT ALSO SLIGHTLY RISIBLE IN ITS OBVIOUSNESS. BUT I WILL APPARENTLY ALWAYS REMEMBER THE WAY RON/FADIMAN HIGHLIGHTED CERTAIN LINES IN THE PLAY: “WHY, JULIA HERSEY: FRENCH TOAST!” AND “THE MOONLIGHT IS SO TERRIBLE!” ANYTIME I THINK OF RON VAWTER, I FEEL PANGS OF GREAT JOY AND GREAT SORROW. ONE MORE DOORWAY INTO THE BOTTOMLESS PIT OF AIDS GRIEF….

STILL, IT WAS FUN TO REVISIT OUR TOWN WITH OUR GANG AND TALK ABOUT THE PLAY AFTERWARDS SITTING ON THE PATIO AT TANTI BACI SHARING PASTA AND A GOOD BOTTLE OF SUPER TUSCAN.

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