When I was younger and arguably stupider than I am now, I dismissed Our Town as feeble, sentimental mush. Its depiction of a fake, nostalgic past without greed or bigotry or cruelty of any kind seemed almost criminal—the town of Grover's Corners is so innocent and upstanding, it makes Lake Wobegon look like a pack of Wall Street wolves on vacation in Amsterdam. Though I hadn't read him yet, I would've agreed with critic George Stephens, who wrote in 1959 that Americans only enjoy gazing through Our Town's "mist of gentle, romantic nostalgia" because it shows them a vision of life that "some people believe or like to think existed."
As years passed, Thornton Wilder's three-act rumination on life, change, and death in a small New England town seemed, to me, to take on some dimensions of actual tragedy. It only lulls us with the first two acts of small-town sweetness to wallop us in the third, the graveyard scene where the dead can talk and tell us that we all sleepwalk through life but don't realize it until it's too late. As the omniscient Stage Manager (in this production, a relaxingly restrained Amy Thone) says at the end of act two: "The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will—once in a thousand times it's interesting." As a playwright friend of mine says he was once told by fellow playwright Thomas Babe, the ambient sadness of the play, its quiet insistence that we don't appreciate life and then we lose it, "should cut like a buzz saw."
Strawberry Theatre Workshop's Our Town does not exactly cut like a buzz saw, but it has moments of deep poignancy. Thone's Stage Manager is folksy—a Seattle version, not a hokey, old-timey version—without being cloying, allowing the play's few darkly inflected phrases to land with the proper force, like the last four words of this sentence about the town cemetery: "We're all glad they're in a beautiful place... and we're coming up here ourselves when our fit's over." Director Greg Carter keeps the house lights up for most of the show, and audience members sit on either side of the room, looking at each other through Our Town—a somewhat literal but nice touch for this play about a community taking stock of itself. That also resonates with the fact that Our Town inaugurates the main stage of 12th Avenue Arts as Seattle's newest theater—a heartening event in a fast-changing, rent-rising neighborhood, and a moment for Seattle's theater community to think about where it fits into this rapidly shifting city.
Our Town was Thornton Wilder's direct-address, meta-theatrical rebellion in an era of dominant realism—across the Atlantic, Bertolt Brecht was pulling similar stunts—so it doesn't demand actors to give classically believable performances. Joe Cummings and Anastasia Higham have a gee-whiz, Jimmy Stewart quality as George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the central characters we watch grow up and get married. George Stephens, the critic, rightly identified them not so much as characters as "symbols of youth; they are abstractions or forces clothed in words." Cummings and Higham give their roles a properly allegorical bounce—and their squirming courtship scene in the soda fountain is charmingly, almost archetypally, awkward.
Several of the performances have an iconic-screen-actor quality. Rob Burgess plays Doc Gibbs, George's bighearted father, with a Bob Newhart merriness. Mr. Webb, the town's newspaper editor (Greg Lyle-Newton), began his performance with an incongruously frantic, almost Nicolas Cage aspect as he rhapsodized about the town's birds and sunrises, but settled down as things went along.
Our Town's stage directions begin "No curtain. No scenery," but Carter and designer Matthew Smucker fill the stage with household and building tools—another nod to the newness of 12th Avenue Arts—that sometimes work as clever visual jokes. Mrs. Gibbs (Marianne Owen, who frets over George in a cozy, homey sort of way) serves her husband slices of "French toast" that are actually dish sponges, which he slathers in liquid-soap "syrup," and Mrs. Webb (Sheila Daniels) uses packing peanuts for garden beans, running her nails along the sides to make a zipping sound when she's "stringing" them.
This Our Town probably won't change anybody's strongly held opinions about the play—if you think it's too wholesome, you'll find plenty to snort at; if you love its undercurrent of unsettling metaphysics, you'll get that, too. But the production as a whole has a benevolence that's slightly infectious, and Thone's stubborn refusal to hit any mawkish notes in her performance anchors the mood.
Our Town is a pretty safe bet for almost any company at any time—it has name recognition and a big cast to move tickets, and it is a play you could bring your parents or your children to—but Carter has been wanting to produce it for 10 years, and this play about community events seemed perfect for the opening of a new community space. "A place is not a theater until we make it one," he wrote in an e-mail after opening weekend. "It allows us an authentic claim of making something where nothing existed before."