Thornton’s Beautiful Masterpiece: Our Town in The Almeida

Our Town?

Sure. I think I saw that in high school. Think it was the school play in my freshman year or something. Generally pleasant production. Can’t remember a specific thing about it.

Okay. Forgettable then. I can’t imagine this new version being watchable, not even at The Almeida. It would have to be amazing.

But alas. So indelibly is Our Town associated in my mind with clichéd canonical American ‘taught texts’, school bells, homeroom, locker combos, and am dram, that it would need to be a damn fine overhaul for this play to impress in 2014. It would have to be like Tim Burton directing ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’, or Jim Jarmusch’s A Separate Peace or David Lynch’s The Scarlet Letter (actually that could really work) or Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby and no one wants that.

But this, David Cromer’s production of this American classic is something else entirely. As it turns out, it’s a bit more like Peter Brook directing… well… Thornton Wilder. And it works incredibly well.

Cromer’s touch on this gentle and slow-burning story is well-judged, subtle, and in the end, devastatingly masterful, the director himself taking the role of the narrator and of the ‘stage manager’ in this very postmodern work that plays freely with the dividing line between audience and actor. You can hear the crisp sycamore leaves crackling in the wind in Cromer’s nasally Chicagoan drawl when he addresses us directly, striding the parapet of the practically nonexistent fourth wall. An expatriate theatregoer in Islington will feel a warm sense of autumnal nostalgia for the homeland. Their British counterparts will feel the same transatlantic warmth drifting round them.

Cromer’s production has had a successful run and rave reviews in several cities back in America and we can see why, but clearly the decision for each actor to play their characters in very strong regional British accents is fascinating and ingenious. It universalizes the chronicling of provincial life in this play and somehow internalizes the existential yearning that each character endures. We imagine instead of this being a small town in New Hampshire that it is a small town in Wales, or England, or Scotland, that in fact these characters are everyman figures struggling to escape small town, everywhere.

The set is minimalist, as Wilder seems to have intended, but Cromer doesn’t even bother with the ‘half light’ specified in the original script, setting up the stage as though the actors are still in dress rehearsal. Characters enact their intimate confrontations with self and others amidst the audience, sometimes with members of that same audience participating.

Although this play is at its strongest with the ensemble working together, slicing apart a cross section of their community for us, Laura Ellsworthy’s portrayal of the young, naïve, and surprisingly complex character of Emily has such depth and evokes such a sense of sympathy that it would be hard hearted viewer who does not feel deeply moved by the time the lights go up.

Perhaps in the same way that George Bernard Shaw opined that youth is wasted on the young, Wilder is wasted on the high schools of America. Cromer has done for me what no teacher managed to do in four years of high school. He’s made me interested in Wilder again.

Our Town is in The Almeida until Sat 29 November. Bookings here. It’s awesome and worth it.

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