In the preface to his three major plays, Thornton Wilder provides an interesting look into the development of the desire to use his craft to prod the rising middle class out of its collective slumber and into reality:
They were benevolent within certain limits, but chose to ignore wide tracts of injustice and stupidity in the world around them; and they shrank from contemplating those elements within themselves that were ridiculous, shallow and harmful.
Most certainly the nineteenth century middle class did not want to be confronted with great truths in the theatre, preferring trite melodrama to high art.
In reaction to the collective wish for boxing the action into a proscenium and shutting the plays into a “museum showcase,” Wilder took it upon himself to strip away lavish scenery and larger-than-life characters in favour of imagined settings and props as inhabited and used by everyday folk with, apparently, unremarkable lives.
Director Molly Smith, well-known at the Shaw Festival for her staging of musicals, finds that Our Town “is the story of a community of people who are unsentimental, practical and grounded.”
How very curious indeed, then, to choose John Sloan’s The Picnic Grounds as the visual personification of Smith’s vision on the house program cover. The obvious link to the play is that both are set in turn-of-the-century Northeastern United States, but Sloan’s characters are overtly enjoying themselves in a manner Wilder’s can only dream of (and the good people of Grover’s Corners only come to full life once their earthly days are done).
The three acts (largely dealing with birth, marriage and death) are glued together by Wilder through his alter ago, Stage Manager. Benedict Campbell does a fine job moving his colleagues through their paces, only wanting a tad more irony than drollness in the delivery.
Somewhat akin to Sloan’s painting, the younger set of the cast provides the most satisfaction. Charlie Gallant is readily convincing as George Gibbs, gamely taking his lumps from his father (Patrick Galligan, ideally understated portraying Dr. Gibbs) or his intelligent, somewhat bashful intended (Kate Besworth plays Emily Gibbs with a wonderful sense of coyness and charm, only to become overly naïve in the netherworld).
Catherine McGregor hits all of her notes as Mrs. Gibbs, especially when confessing the fantasy of a trip to Paris (where no one speaks English and nobody minds), while Jenny Wright is convincingly down to earth (routine daily chores being her lifeblood) as Mrs. Webb. Rounding out the principals, Patrick McManus makes for an affable editor of the local paper even if some stories reflect the community mantra of “looking the other way” when bad behaviour finds itself revealed the “dull” mix. (None better than Peter Millard to lose his battle with the bottle while simultaneously leading the church choir as they sing the Lord’s praises.)
Wilder’s “no scenery” dictum is more or less faithfully kept, leaving the audience to fill in many visual blanks using their imaginations. Hearing the odd milk bottle clink, or horse whiney doesn’t interfere with the intent, but the sound effects for the frequent gate openings/closings become as tiresome as they are predictable: and no need, as the miming is first rate.
As groundbreaking and thoughtful as it was nearly eight decades ago, the need to “wake up” the middle class has come and gone. And with the penchant for so many marriages to fail and the unstoppable rise of the Me-I generation enabled by social media, Wilder’s theatrical journey from cradle to grave seems to have fallen into its own museum showcase.
Shakespeare’s works are very frequently given more relevance to present-day audiences by time shifting the action to an era (and not just “now”) that can drive his points home with extra power.
Wilder anticipated the need for his work to evolve (either as an adaptation or inspiration for a entirely new twist on the universal themes) when he wrote, “Literature has always more resembled a torch race rather than a furious dispute among heirs.”
Any takers? JWR