“It has already been proven that absence of scenery does not constitute a difficulty and that cooperative imagination of the audience is stimulated by that absence.” So Thornton Wilder reminds prospective directors in a preface to the published script of Our Town, the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner and mainstay of high school English classes.
Take it or leave it, Wilder’s tip is a boon to theater companies with limited budgets, as Rusty Tennant of Fuse Theatre Ensemble can attest. Tennant’s initial conception of Our Town—which opens Friday at the Back Door Theatre on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and runs through Christmas Eve—was to traverse an entire century, beginning with the play’s early 1900s setting, moving toward a tumultuous ’60s second act, and ending in a post-pandemic wasteland with a flooded stage.
“But then a friend asked me, what does that concept have to say about queer people?”
Fuse is known for its commitment to foregrounding the work of LGBTQ+ artists, so the director shifted gears. Heeding Wilder’s advice, the extravagant stagecraft was done away with. Wilder by many accounts was likely gay, and Tennant says the production aims to excavate the queerness from the playwright’s canonical text by casting queer actors.
“I realized it was just enough to have our cast tell this story,” says Tennant.
While a typical staging of Our Town might feature over two dozen performers, Tennant has distilled Fuse’s cast to six. This gives the ensemble a wealth of rich material to mine—there really are no small parts. The actors rise to the occasion, deftly transporting Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, to Backdoor’s intimate black box. The preview I saw Wednesday night was beautiful and spare.
Jane Comer is noteworthy as the meta-theatrical Stage Manager. She guides us through the ups and downs of life in small-town America with the play’s trademark “New England dryness,” though her inner Portlander often shines through. Even in the play’s gothic ending, Comer projects a warmth that is never fully diminished.
Act Three is called “Death and Eternity”; unsurprisingly, it presents a radical shift in the play. Tennant takes the radical instinct and runs with it—some of their early ideas for the play have prevailed. The scene is set at a funeral. Pallbearers enter wearing N90 face masks, and graveyard ghosts evoke a Zoom meeting when they appear on a television recording (Jacob Spiers did the videography). The pandemic aesthetic provides a well-timed jolt to the last stretch of the play, which runs over two-and-a-half hours, including two intermissions.
In their director’s note Tennant ventures that some audience members will want Our Town to be a “sepia-toned homage” to an American classic, but I doubt anyone who wanders into the Back Door Theatre will expect a deference to tradition. Nor should they want it. Fuse’s production is in keeping with Wilder’s formal experimentalism, a queer retelling of a familiar play that, despite its avant-garde origins, has become as American as apple pie.