“Cruel” is not a word usually liked to Our Town, that glorious, perfect play of the everyday and the cosmic. But it’s highly appropriate in the case of the Huntington Theatre’s current production, a revamp of David Cromer’s devastating, super successful staging previously seen in Chicago, New York, and L.A.
Playwright Thornton Wilder’s contention is that it’s nearly impossible for humans to appreciate their lives. “Saints and poet, maybe—they do some,” Wilder writes, but the rest of us are left floundering in “ignorance and blindness.” His play, then, serves as a wake-up call: Look at everything!, it cries, take it all in!
How, you ask, is that cruel?
It’s all in the actors.
Cromer has guided them to quick, plainspoken, totally unsentimental performances. They sit with nothing—words and scenes whizz by at an exhausting clip. Even at the gorgeously written finale, the big revelations play out even before they seem to have begun. Speeches that usually get a more thoughtful pace stampede out of view; you almost feel yourself reaching out, gasping for breath, “Wait, wait for me!”
This tactic is, in a word, cruel—if you love this play (as I do), you want to soak everything in, moment by moment. At the Huntington, you are totally denied this desire. Cromer refuses to meditate on things, instead hurrying unblinkingly to the final blackout. The delicious moments of transcendence only brush your tongue before getting yanked away. It’s frustrating. It’s exasperating.
And it’s wildly, brilliantly appropriate. Thanks to Cromer’s take, the play become a two-hour metaphor for a lifetime of hurried, unappreciated living; by forcing you into the agonizing position of harried observer, Cromer and Wilder shake you into self-awareness, into becoming an observer of both a play and your own life. In both this production and life, events zoom by, the next thing rolls along, then poof! another act, another year’s gone by.
Like a booming drum, this Our Town practically screams out into its final silence, Life is short. Moments disappear. Grab them by the horns.
“Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder, directed by David Cromer
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company
photo by T. Charles Erickson, pictured: Therese Plaehn, David Cromer, and Derrick Trumbly