Thornton Wilder

Making American theater 1940s again

Reviews: Center Stage's "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Artists Rep's "The Skin of Our Teeth" revive 1940s classics. Surprise: they're contemporary, too.

“Stella!” the woolly mammoth roars, and the American culture of the 1940s escapes into the 21st century by the skin of its teeth. Surprisingly, it feels right at home.

Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre opened the final shows of their current seasons over the weekend with classic pieces that bookend that strange and transformative decade of American history. Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (at Artists Rep) opened on Broadway in October 1942, less than a year after the United States entered World War II. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (at Center Stage) opened in December 1947, as the nation and the world were still getting used to the war’s end and trying to establish some new sort of normalcy.

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Diedrie Henry as Blanche, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley: power and desire. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

By far the more optimistic play is the one actually created in wartime, Wilder’s audacious comic overview of humankind’s stumbling progress from its beginnings. The Skin of Our Teeth is something of a rallying cry in bleak times, a promise that even when we take five steps backward, we usually manage to make them up and take a tentative sixth step forward. A Streetcar Named Desire is steeped in the realities that settle in after the crisis has been overcome, and the sense of progress that seemed to sustain us seems suddenly to have been illusory, a curdled dream: how quickly we are wired to forget. Restless for Utopia now and embittered that it doesn’t magically appear, we make ourselves miserable. It is part of Williams’ genius that the misery he creates is so attractive.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: the kindness of strangers and the skin of our teeth

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

Here it is, the middle of May, and suddenly Portland’s theater season is entering its final stretch before summer, which brings its own busy theater mini-season, indoors and out. The city’s two biggest companies open shows this weekend, both high-profile American classics and both due for a fresh look.

Flickering desire: "Streetcar" at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Flickering desire: “Streetcar” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

On Friday, Portland Center Stage opens its revival of Tennessee Williams’ rough, sensual, groundbreaking A Streetcar Named Desire, which in its 1947 debut featured Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and a smoldering hunk of muscle named Marlon Brando as Stanley. Center Stage has come up with a new Southern strategy, rethinking the play in a thoroughly multiracial milieu, with national players Kristen Adele as Stella, Demetrius Grosse as Stanley, and Diedrie Henry (a onetime regular at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as Blanche. Can we depend on the kindness of strangers?

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‘Our Town’: Through a glass, darkly

Portland Center Stage opens its season with a dark and brooding revival of Thornton Wilder's American classic

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.

Shawn Fagan as the Stage Manager, with the company. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Shawn Fagan as the Stage Manager, with the company. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

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.

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Review: Imago Theatre’s ‘Pimento + Pullman’

Angels, clowns, and cosmic questions in a Thornton Wilder/Jerry Mouawad double feature

For four nights only ending Sunday, with a free ticket promotion for its newsletter subscribers, Imago presents Pimento & Pullman, a lighthearted living-room short that Imago’s Jerry Mouawad has written in-house followed by a haunting train tale by the playwright perhaps best known for Our Town, Thornton Wilder.

Woods, Triffle, Mullaney: three clowns in a fountain. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Woods, Triffle, Mullaney: three clowns in a fountain. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Pimento

A pimento, as you probably know, is a pepper, most easily recognized as the red chunk in a green olive. Imago’s Pimento, too, is a spicy nugget served with a grain of salt. In this uproarious little short by artistic director Mouawad, a mother (Carol Triffle) tries to encourage, yet manage, a courtship between her young daughter (Stephanie Elizabeth Woods) and her suitor, a decorated young soldier (Mark Mullaney). Using commedia dell’arte style clowning techniques, falling all over each other and babbling variously in fake German, fake French, and fake Japanese, the trio still manages to embody the many micro-emotions that would accompany that scenario in real life…and eventually, believe it or not, they play beautiful music together.

This piece is an appetizer for, or a garnish on, the longer work of the evening, Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha…and as such, it’s not meant to match but to augment and contrast. Like its namesake, it could go with a lot of things. It’s tonally in-mode with Imago’s signature Frogz and Big Little Things, though its “adult” content puts it at odds. Its theme goes with the more serious fare it’s set with here…but its antics are much sillier. In this way, it’s most similar to touring group Wonderheads’ Grim and Fischer, a sprightly mask show about an old woman battling death. At any rate, Pimento brings its own piquant flavor and whets the appetite for the next offering, making great use of its 15-minute runtime.

Pullman Car Hiawatha

“Let’s get everyone together here,” prompts the narrator (played by Bill Barry) of Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha. He apparently means not only the passengers and porter on a 1930 train from New York to Chicago…but also the conversations they’re having, the train cars that hold them, the fields and towns the train happens to pass, the planets of the universe, “the weapon,” and two silent “archangels” who seem to have been running the show from the get-go.

Oh, Wilder. What a pantheist, seeing the sublime in literally every thing. Or arguably a deist, letting an omniscient narrator observe the proceedings with minimal interference. At any rate, Pullman mimics Wilder’s more popular Our Town in these key ways.We even get a character here, as in Our Town, who’s transformed into a ghost and observes the retreating world with a new appreciation for the little things.

The passengers’ clothes and suitcases, which mostly adhere to the script’s suggestion of era, give the show an antique distance and also nod to classic noir: here a fur coat, there some heeled maryjanes, everywhere a fedora. Scene changes are accompanied by a rumble of jazz, and sometimes, of course, the rhythm of the train as lights speed across the stage to show movement.

The passengers move around plenty, changing their seating arrangement in a flurry of clockwork-tight chair dances to present their travel from multiple angles. Some even switch character and accent midstream…we’re just getting a sense of the variety of lives. A mentally fragile woman (Sascha Blocker) struggles with a ham-handed doctor (Cedar Braasch) and a reassuring nurse (Laura Loy). A young man (Mark Mullaney) muses about his love, Lillian. An older couple (Terry Lybecker and Carol Triffle) bicker, and an Asian porter (Samson Syharath) complains in his native tongue about the passengers’ needy demands.

Where the passengers are era-bound and complex, the chairs and one long diagonal staircase are simple, stark, and modern. So are the “archangels,” dressed in slim suits and dark glasses like modern FBI, CIA, or Secret Service agents. They’re agents of something, all right, manning the lights and cuing the tunes that permeate the train passengers’ fitful night.

It’s these two characters (played by Rafael Miguel and Sam Bridgnell) that lead the willing into a philosophical rabbit-hole. It’s unclear in this production whether the agents are sinister, like the manipulators of The Matrix, or benevolent like most angels are storied to be…or simply in limbo like Dogma‘s Bartleby and Loki. They hardly speak, but their angular movements range from coldly procedural, to tender, to almost homoerotic. This brings to mind another pair of angels: the Biblical ones who visited Lot in Sodom (incidentally, a silent film titled just that came out in 1933…and bear with me…).

In the Bible story, Lot receives angels as guests in his home, but the citizens of Sodom surround his house and threaten to assault them, then settle for abusing his daughters. Turns out the angels are on a spy mission to decide the fate of the city, and once they observe the townspeople’s aggressive behavior, they declare the place fit for demolition. Although theologians have overemphasized the supposed genders of the characters involved…what we really have is a morality tale against a society that puts rabid individual self-interest over the safety and sovereignty of others — a rape culture, if you will.

Now, Wilder’s troubled little train-people are way less messed up than the ones in this older story. They may obsess over their own needs, but not at others’ peril. Still, In Pullman just as in Sodom, angels deliberate over who deserves to “go” with them and who must stay, and whether to “take” the whole train. Scorched earth policy, or careful selection? Choose those who are mistakenly eager, or take the wisely reluctant? Suffice to say, these archangels’ dilemmas have a long literary precedent.

Less obvious is the story’s connection to Song of Hiawatha, a Native American myth set to verse by Longfellow. While this story is about surrender and community, that one seems much more about individualism and righteous conquest…but it’s probably quoted along with a barrage of other literature midway through the play. Actors portraying fields and other atmosphere recite and credit passages while crossing the stage on a porter-operated handcar, their words almost too fleeting to catch.

Novel staging elements at Imago are like a gun in Chekhov: if they’re there, they will be used. Therefore, view the stair steps that crane dangerously into the rafters with appropriate suspense. Someone is either going up, or coming down.