It’s highly unusual for me to devote my entire Wall Street Journal drama column to a single production, but after seeing Hartford Stage’s new production of Our Town on Wednesday night, I didn’t hesitate to shoot the works:
If I were to pick a handful of works of art that, taken together, embody the American experience, one of them would be Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” That was Wilder’s purpose in writing his best-known play. “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying,” says the Stage Manager, the character who narrates his fictional chronicle of life in a small New England town not long after the turn of the 20th century. It is a claim that only the most self-assured of artists would dare to make–and one that “Our Town” satisfies to the fullest degree. So, too, does Hartford Stage’s revival of “Our Town,” in which the 82-year-old Hal Holbrook gives the performance of a long lifetime as the Stage Manager. This is the finest “Our Town” I have seen or hope to see, a production masterly in its self-effacing understatement and satisfying in every possible way….
Part of what makes a classic play classic is its ability to stand up to an infinite number of approaches and still remain recognizable. At the same time, few things are so compelling as a revival of a well-known play that offers you nothing more (or less) than the thing itself, unadorned and direct. This is the way that Gregory Boyd has treated “Our Town” in his Hartford Stage production, and the results are as illuminating in their own straightforward way as the most radical of reinterpretations. Not all of Wilder’s stage directions are taken literally–Mr. Holbrook’s Stage Manager doesn’t smoke a pipe–but at no time do you feel that Mr. Boyd and his actors are getting in the way of the text. Instead they revel in it, taking Grover’s Corners at face value and lettiing us draw our own conclusions about the plain people who live there.
Such an approach requires first-rate acting to make its effect, and Hal Holbrook is the man for the job. His Stage Manager is very much in the tradition of Frank Craven, who created the role on Broadway in 1938 and filmed it two years later in Hollywood. His accent is purest New England, his manner spare and flinty. You could, I suppose, call it conventional, but that would be missing the point: Like Mr. Boyd, Mr. Holbrook trusts the play, and is content to let it make its points without superimposing any of his own. The simplicity with which he delivers his oft-quoted curtain speech (“Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners….You get a good rest too”) is an object lesson in how to act without seeming to do so….
No free link, so go buy Friday’s paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will allow you to read my column–and all the rest of the Journal‘s excellent arts coverage–in the twinkling of an eye. (If you’re already a subscriber, the column is here.)