Rep takes on a clas­sic with ‘mas­sive emo­tional cen­ter’

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

In Our Town, Thorn­ton Wilder’s clas­sic play, the char­ac­ter of the Stage Man­ager al­ways has the first and last words about do­ings in the small town of Grover’s Cor­ners.

And it’s the char­ac­ter’s in­sights that fre­quently drive to the heart of the drama.

“It’s like what one of those Mid­dle West po­ets said,” ex­plains the Stage Man­ager, played by ac­tor Laura Gor­don in the up­com­ing Mil­wau­kee Rep pro­duc­tion. “You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to have life to love life. It’s what they call a vi­cious cir­cle.”

It’s a cy­cle that catches un­sus­pect­ing young lovers Emily (Cher De­siree Al­varez) and Ge­orge (Di’Monte Hen­ning) — and, in fact, all the res­i­dents of Grover’s Cor­ners — in its end­less ro­ta­tion.

A Pulitzer Prize-win­ning story of life, love, birth, death and what comes af­ter, Our Town is a play that many say is with­out peer in Amer­i­can the­ater.

“It’s re­ally one of the great­est Amer­i­can plays ever writ­ten,” says Brent Hazel­ton, who is direct­ing the Rep pro­duc­tion that opens April 10 at the Quadracci Pow­er­house. “The writ­ing is beau­ti­ful, and the play’s emo­tional cen­ter is mas­sive, with a mes­sage to get our heads out of what­ever we’re do­ing and look around.

“Ev­ery mo­ment of life is life,” the di­rec­tor adds, “and you never know which mo­ment will be your last.”

WILDER’S WIS­CON­SIN CON­NEC­TION

Wilder was born in Madi­son, the son of a Wis­con­sin State Jour­nal co-owner and editor who was tapped by Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt to serve as con­sul gen­eral to Shanghai.

Wilder then al­ter­nated his youth pri­mar­ily be­tween China and Cal­i­for­nia, never again re­turn­ing to Wis­con­sin.

“I think he had a pretty good ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing in Madi­son,” says Wilder scholar Lin­coln Kon­kle, an English pro­fes­sor at the Col­lege of New Jer­sey in Ewing and board mem­ber of the Thorn­ton Wilder So­ci­ety.

“But Grover’s Cor­ners is re­ally a com­pos­ite of Madi­son; Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia; and Peter­bor­ough, New Hamp­shire, where he wrote part of the play and which claims to be the model for the fic­tional town,” adds Kon­kle, who earned his Ph.D. at UW-Madi­son and has penned sev­eral books about Wilder. “How­ever, I think the dis­rup­tion of his idyl­lic child­hood prob­a­bly gave him some­thing of a nos­tal­gic feel for Madi­son.”

But Wilder’s un­der­stand­ing of the hu­man con­di­tion goes well be­yond our pen­chant for nos­tal­gia.

“Wilder’s world­view is that life is both a com­edy and a tragedy,” Kon­kle says. “Emily be­comes the tragic hero who dis­cov­ers the truth about life, but too late to save her­self.

“But it’s not too late for au­di­ences. We can leave the the­ater and try to live our lives a lit­tle more aware of what life has to of­fer and act on that aware­ness,” the scholar adds. “This is why Ed­ward Al­bee calls Our Town one of the most ex­is­ten­tial works he’s ever come across.”

‘Wilder’s world view is that life is both a com­edy and a tragedy.’

DI­VERSE CAST

Hazel­ton has worked hard to avoid the sheen of so­porific sen­ti­men­tal­ity that plagues many high-school pro­duc­tions of the play. He also em­ploys a di­verse cast.

“We tried to cre­ate a cast rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Mil­wau­kee,” Hazel­ton says, “of our town.”

Be­yond rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the cast of Our Town also is one of the largest in the Rep’s his­tory — sec­ond in size only to the 2013 pro­duc­tion of Rag­time.

The play’s struc­ture, with el­e­ments of com­edy and tragedy, may make it emo­tion­ally chal­leng­ing, but Hazel­ton hopes the script and his pro­duc­tion en­able the ac­tors to con­nect with au­di­ences, open­ing di­a­logues that last long af­ter the cur­tain falls.

“I don’t en­joy the­ater that tells me what I need to think, and I avoid cre­at­ing the­ater like that,” the di­rec­tor says. “Plays that al­low me to find my own way into the nar­ra­tive are the type that I like.

“This play is per­fect for that,” he says. “Its am­bi­gu­i­ties are mas­sive and de­light­ful to wrestle with.”

Mil­wau­kee Rep is ready­ing for the stage.

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