Rep takes on a classic with ‘massive emotional center’
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.’
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.