Our TownPosted on: 14 November 2014 by Laurence Green
Laurence Green finds Our Town (Almeida Theatre) to be an intimate, tender play which still carries an extraordinary resonance
A small town becomes an allegory for everyday life in David Cromer’s unconventional but compelling stage adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town (Almeida Theatre).
The action is set in Grover’s Corner Massachusetts in the early part of the 20th Century where the familiar cycle of life and death forms the structure of the play. In three acts we are witness to the full spectrum of life in the town, from the birth of two new residents to the ritual marriage and the final destination of the town graveyard. We see the families of Dr Gibbs and Mr Webb, town doctor and newspaper editor respectively, go about their lives, squabbling about minor issues, gossiping about the local organist’s drinking problems and staring up at the moonlight.
The deceptively simple story reveals the stark truth of human existence, but the real theme is the necessity of living in the moment, of seeing each sunrise clearly.
Wilder presents the action through the eyes of a stage manager (David Cromer), a small, compact figure with lightly greying hair who acts as a narrator and comes among the audience conjuring up everyday life with a coolly observant eye. Assuming the role of a minister, Cromer says, with the wryest of smiles that he has officiated at countless birth and death ceremonies and “Once in a thousand times it’s interesting”.
The play was originally considered experimental, emphasising the artificiality of theatre (the house lights are kept on throughout), while at the same time using drama to shed some light on the pros and cons of small town life and to alert audiences to the transience of experience. Indeed after a somewhat slow start the piece picks up a strong head of steam to reach a surprisingly powerful climax.
The most daring decision, however, in this quintessentially American play is to use British actors speaking in a variety of regional accents. At first it seems strange but you soon realise that the aim is to tap into our collective folk-memory, so that Our Town becomes every town, a fact reinforced by the programme showing a compressed map of America, on which are printed British towns and cities.
Apart from David Cromer’s sterling work as director and performer, there are excellent performances by Anna Francolini as the weary, yet patient doctor’s wife Mrs Gibbs, Rhashan Stone who brings sombre dignity to the role of Dr Gibbs, David Walmsley as George Gibbs, a man who experienced both great joy and great sorrow, and especially Laura Elsworthy as dramatic lynchpin Emily, who faces each of life’s little sorrows and ecstasies with a quiet intensity and who finally is offered a glimpse of the life she left behind.
This is an intimate, tender play which still carries an extraordinary resonance.
Plays at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday 29 November
Box office 020 7359 4404
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