It was a dark and stormy night at Portland Center Stage on Friday, which was odd, because the temperature had turned, and the town was heading once again into one of those sunny almost-autumn spells. But the weather above and the weather onstage are often out of sync, and at PCS you could feel the chill. It was opening night, not just of the theater company’s season, but also of the darkest, bleakest Our Town I’ve ever seen.
Our Town, despite its misleading reputation as chirpily sentimental Americana, is a play with a deep morose streak. Or maybe “uncompromising” is a better word. It ends, after all, in a cemeterial halfway house, a sort of Yankee Purgatory, where the shades of those who’ve passed on from the vale of troubles that is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, loiter about the stage, waiting for the infernalities of life on Earth to seep slowly out of their consciousness so they can move on to whatever comes next. No sentimentality in these decomposing souls, or guardian-angeling over those they’ve left behind: just determined quietude, and tamped-down impatience.
Director Rose Riordan gets that part in spades. This production seems absolutely eager for the endgame, rushing through the life-is-precious parts so it can get to the life-is-vanity part. The stage, as usual for Our Town, is stark, with nothing much but a couple of ladder-towers and a few chairs (people forget how radical a visual approach this was in 1938, when the play had its premiere). But, unusually, the stage is also pretty much plunged into darkness, illuminated mainly where the specific action is, with everything else fading into a crypt-like dank. If you’re imagining the antiquarian delights of early 20th century Grover’s Corners and its ice cream soda-sipping embrace of the simple joys of living, you’re imagining it through a glass, darkly.
Shawn Fagan, as the Stage Manager, is New England laconic to a T, dry as a tart cider, a just-the-facts storyteller who spells things out clearly and efficiently but with little sense of dramatic embellishment. At times it seems he might be from neighboring Connecticut, the insurance state, reciting actuarial tables, emphasizing facts and dismissing truths as someone else’s business. There is nothing of the ringmaster or the cabaret emcee in his performance; he seems less the shaper and teller of the tale than the occasional observer of the drama’s traffic signs. If his performance seems more a play-by-play broadcast than the guiding hand of God (the play, after all, is partly a contemplation of whether such a hand exists), it also seems close in spirit to the way Wilder declared he meant it: to be performed “without sentimentality or ponderousness – simply, dryly, and sincerely.”
Still, a cider can be tart, or a cider can be sour, and this production leans decidedly to the puckery side of the flavor spectrum. Moments of dry humor stand out: Leif Norby’s eons-rambling lecture as Professor Willard on the town’s history, for instance, which the Stage Manager wryly cuts short; Sharonlee McLean’s awkward effusions as the voluble Mrs. Soames; Tina Chilip’s acerbic, take-charge delivery as Mrs. Webb; Gina Daniels’ generous warmth as Mrs. Gibbs; Sathya Sridharan’s gawky earnestness as George Gibbs, who stumblingly trades a life as small-town baseball hero for the satisfactions of life as a farmer and husband. Gary Norman is quietly curdled and foreshadowing as Simon Stimson, the church organist and town drunk; and the whole cast is excellent at the miming that the script demands: when the Gibbses or the Webbs are having breakfast or snapping beans or drinking coffee, you can almost see the props that aren’t there. It’s also good to see the ethnic mix of the cast: Our Town is a period piece, and set very deliberately in a specific ingrown part of the country, but its implications are much broader than that. Without ever making an overt comment about it, Center Stage’s multiracial cast brings the tale into the present (or, more accurately, straddles past and present), reflecting a more contemporary America and subtly rethinking the drama’s definition of community.
Our Town was a radical departure for the theater of its time in many ways, but also part of something that was in the air. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 cycle of short stories, had pioneered the idea of profiling the character of an entire town. John Dos Passos’ 1932-36 U.S.A. trilogy of novels had told its story through a mix of fiction and journalistic narrative. A few years later, in 1945, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel would send a dead parent back to his earthly surroundings to try to get things right; and in 1958, Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. would borrow some of Our Town’s stylistic innovations and delve dramatically into the nature of the relationship between God and humans. And Wilder’s own 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the tale of several people whose lives are intertwined only at their deaths, when they tumble from a suspension bridge that snaps in the mountains of Peru, had anticipated Our Town’s fascination with the bridge between life and death, and Wilder’s quest to explore the border territory of fatalism and destiny.
The play’s questions are existential, and in a way, post-existential: Does life have a purpose? When and how does it end? Does it end? What is its relationship to the eternal? “Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit,” Wilder wrote about The Bridge of San Luis Rey, “and they overlook God’s ‘Caritas’ [or charity] which is more all-encompassing and powerful. God’s love has to transcend his just retribution. But in my novel I have left this question unanswered. As I said earlier, we can only pose the question correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way.”
Our Town essentially does the same. Still, it is neither a philosophical nor a religious treatise, but a human drama about characters whom the audience wants to take to heart. To me the soul of this production is Nikki Massoud’s warm and open and funny and vulnerable performance as Emily Webb, the precocious schoolgirl who falls in love and nervously marries and, some years later, dies in childbirth. Emily is the bridge that snaps, and the story of Our Town ultimately is not about the souls she joins in Purgatory or the souls she leaves grieving behind, but of her own existence and the broken link she becomes. She is poised between past and future, longing to look back but unable to return, and her dilemma is, ultimately, every human’s.
There’s a moment in the third act when Emily, observing an ordinary day from her own past, realizes that she no longer belongs with the places and people she loved, and so returns to the cemetery to begin to drain her passion with the rest of the dead souls. In a memorable production, that moment is simply heartbreaking. In this one, my heart didn’t skip a beat, and I think I understand why. To fully engage the audience and the possibilities of the play, a production of Our Town needs to balance a sense of the joys of living with the inevitability of dying: in a strange alchemical way, the contrast between the two creates both deep loss and emotional fulfillment, along with an understanding that the two states of being are contradictory and yet necessarily entwined.
Yet the joys are dimly sketched here: Massoud’s ardor is rarely emulated and never matched by the rest of the production, which is too enamored with the march toward death. The dark is too much with us; the light is dimmed. And when the candle’s finally snuffed, it’s just … the end. Not with fire, but with ice.
Portland Center Stage’s Our Town continues through October 11. Ticket and schedule information are here.