A Review of the Reviews of 'Our Town,' and What They Say About Theater in Our City
The reviews of Intiman's Our Town are in, and the verdict from the Seattle Weekly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Seattle Times is unanimous: three thumbs up. The reviews are bizarre and dispiriting, both because they fail to address questions that the production explicitly raises and because the insipid, self-contradictory prose exemplifies what's wrong with theater criticism--and theater--in this town.
In the Weekly, reviewer Steve Wiecking gushes confusedly about director Bartlett Sher's "attention to Wilder's calmly tumultuous subtext," which literally makes no sense. If subtext can be "calmly tumultuous," then we can describe Wiecking's review as briefly endless and brightly dim and marginally central. Wiecking works himself into such a froth of overwrought oxymorons--indiscriminately jamming adjectives onto nouns and adverbs onto adjectives (the "troubled serenity" of the lighting, "the director's exactitude, however luscious")--that his review ultimately negates itself. His frenzied aphasia, interrupted only by irrelevant tangents (gay marriage, Iraq), is so effusive and empty, it's as if he's trying to avoid saying anything at all.
Still, Wiecking's review can't rival the listless writing in the Seattle P-I. Wiecking at least devotes a paragraph to Tom Skerritt's incompetence in the role of the Stage Manager (though he promptly lapses into apologetics), but the P-I's Joe Adcock barely seems to notice: Skerritt has "an engagingly droll manner" and speaks the lines "so naturally that they seem to be occurring to him right there on the spot." Then, after a small caveat about Skerritt being the only actor miked (a weird choice that every critic noted) Adcock writes, "At times he resembles a hologram more than an interactive presence," only then to make the absurd claim that "there are really no conspicuous weaknesses in Sher's cast." (Unless, of course, you count the lead actor.)
At least Misha Berson of the Seattle Times doesn't go in for Wiecking's incomprehensible swooning or Adcock's wooden weirdness. She even tries to place the play in its historical context (an impulse that Intiman, in dubbing its series of classic plays "The American Cycle," explicitly invites). But her assessment of the production itself is supremely passive and gutless. "One wants to root for [Skerritt] and hope he gains more mastery of his words as the run continues," she ventures. Or she hedges: "Sher's artfully straightforward approach mostly avoids that pitfall." According to Berson, Sher's production is "lucid, graceful, and restrained," but it might leave you "with some reservations." There's really no telling where the Seattle Times theater critic herself comes down.
And if you scavenge these reviews for an opinion--any opinion--about Bartlett Sher's most prominent and dicey directorial choice (Sher has cast African-American, Asian-American, and Latino actors in white roles), you'll come up empty. Sher's casting is aggressively neutral in genetic terms (lily-white Emily has a black father, a white mother, and a black little brother) and lazily neutral in typecasting terms (the loudmouth gossip is played by a black woman). It's a conscious and visually arresting decision, and one of the few choices that directly engages with the problematic aspects of the text, but none of these reviewers bothered to think about whether it actually works.
Berson states mildly that the race-neutral casting "is a symbolic expression of what-might-have-been and what-can-be in our nation, and Seattle"--which patly dispenses with the issue and basically parrots what's printed in the program. Wiecking lauds the choice as being faithful (of all things) to Wilder: "His unforced multicultural casting here is just one piece of an aesthetic that meshes with the playwright." (Again: "meshes"?) Adcock doesn't whisper a word about race, except to say that Our Town doesn't deal with it in the same way as Native Son. (Thanks for that.) This is Sher's lone idea, and Seattle's critics have chosen to open up and swallow it reflexively, rather than to treat it as the meaningful, debatable choice of a theater professional--the artistic director of one of our three major theaters, no less. Make no mistake, the casting is not "multicultural"; the culture represented in Wilder's play is white and Northeastern and emphatically Protestant. When roles in a family are intentionally filled with actors of different races, the director is positing that a monolithic culture subordinates (and perhaps should subordinate) racial difference--but only racial difference, because sexual, economic, and religious striations still flourish.
It's something to think about, but no one's making the attempt. It's as if none of these critics take theater seriously. Witness Misha Berson: "Whether Our Town leaves you sniffing or with some reservations, it certainly leaves you asking who we are, and were, as a national community. A dialogue about that, one hopes, will be a big fringe benefit of Intiman's American Cycle." A dialogue would be great; it'd be even greater if our critics could deliver the first line.