Greatest production of the greatest American play

Wilder classic packs gutsy, powerful atoms of instinctive truth

It’s was just before dawn on May 7, 1901 — when Doc Gibbs wiped his feet on the (invisible) doormat before entering his (invisible) house — that my nose started prickling.

My nose starts prickling at anything beautiful and gutsy and powerful in art or in life. This tiny action — Doc Gibbs returning home across the tracks from birthing a set of twins in Polish Town — was a powerful atom of instinctive truth.

I’ve now seen this production — the greatest production of the greatest American play I have ever seen — twice. I saw it once shortly after its opening last February, and again last week. The impact was even greater the second time.

The Barrow Street Theatre (in Greenwich House) has been reconfigured for this staging, and so has Thornton Wilder’s luminous “Our Town” itself. The intelligence behind all this is that of director David Cromer, who looked deep into Grover’s Corners and saw the grit and the guilt and much other fallibility behind this 1938 masterwork’s preservation of the ideal America of our imagined memories.

It is a dual process, this achievement of Cromer’s. He has toughened up the entire statement of the play, while at the same time wrapping the actors and the audience more tightly together than anyone else ever has.

I first knew we were to hold onto our seat belts at Barrow Street when, early on, Mrs. Gibbs, the doctor’s wife, started slicing (invisible) breakfast bacon six inches from my hands and reporter’s notebook

I have detested “audience participation” theater since it was invented; but the Barrow Street experience is an organic whole from the moment the Stage Manager, in sneakers and jeans, (currently long, lanky, energetic Jason Butler Harner) gestures clean through us, north, south, east, west, laying out the geography and sociology of this “Nice town, y’know what I mean?”

And then 11-year-old Joe Crowell, Jr., comes along, tossing (invisible) newspapers in (invisible) doorways — “Morning, Doc Gibbs”; “Morning, Joe” — and a few seconds later we’re slapped in the face with the information that high-school and Mass Tech ace scholar Joe Crowley, Jr., a future engineer, will instead be wiped out in World War I

“All that education for nothing,” says the Stage Manager — just exactly what I said to myself the day John F. Kennedy was killed. “Our Town” is a play that reverberates in more ways than one.

Even so politically dyspeptic a playgoer as New York Times columnist Frank Rich has been knocked out by this re-interpreted, unvarnished look at the American Dream.

As for ensemble acting, Stanislavsky, as my mother would say, isn’t in it.

What reverberates even more forcefully at Barrow Street is the harsh truth that Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, in their sneakers and sweaters, may never have had a nervous breakdown — but for all that, they’re still living on the edges of their nerves. And so are Doc Gibbs and Mr. Webb and serious young Emily Webb, and sexually entangled choirmaster Simon Stimson, and even Emily’s husband-to-be, hunky high-school jock George Gibbs.

On the wedding day of George and Emily, several of these people — notably Emily herself — are on the verge of cracking up. This becomes manifest in Mr. Cromer’s production as never in my experience before. Actors and audience have now become an organic whole.

During an intermission last week, just after Mrs. Gibbs (Lori Myers) has banged down a chair to emphasize a point in a “discussion” with Doc Gibbs (Armand Schultz), freezing all onlookers into dead silence, I overheard one young fellow murmur to his date: “There was real tension there” — and there had been. The audience that day — a packed house — was indeed, by rough estimate, 60 to 70 percent under the age of 35 — a wonderful phenomenon.

The banging of the chair had echoed the Stage Manager’s banging down a copy of this very play to underscore its inclusion in a time capsule — along with a copy of the Bible, the Constitution of the United States, and the plays of William Shakespeare — not to be opened for a thousand years.

“So, people of a thousand years from now — this is the way it was in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century — This is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying…”

It not only makes my nose prickle, it makes me shiver all over, and always has—now with one further little twist, the Stage Manager’s pronunciation of “the U-nighted States of America just as Barack Obama has always pronounced it to stress the homogeneity of this nation.

Skinny, pretty-plain Emily Webb (Jennifer Grace) is the perfect foil against baseball-hero farmer boy George Gibbs (James McMenamin) — a bundle of young feminine dynamite whose tears in the famous drugstore scene are more of anger at slow-maturing George than of virginal loneliness.

The women of Grover’s Corners — Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb (Kati Brazda), even gabby Mrs. Soames (Susan Bennett) — are strongholds of equanimity in the face of (their own) hysteria.

In the third act — the cemetery act — I found myself sitting two feet away from a pale, very tense young man in a Boy Scout uniform. This lad remained tight as a wire, not moving a muscle, until the name “Wally” was voiced among the tombstones. At that single word — or name — his head snapped around as in electric shock.

He was, of course, Emily’s all-but-forgotten kid brother, Wally Webb (Jake Horowitz), who had died of a burst appendix while at camp in North Conway years earlier. I cite it as a token of the discipline — or spontaneity within discipline — of David Cromer’s vision.

“I can’t bear it,” says Emily during her brief return to the home of her twelfth birthday. “They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’ve grown up…So all that was going on and we never noticed.”

She draws a curtain and shuts it all out.

“Once in a thousand years it’s interesting,” the Stage Manager tells us. “Our Town,” — and this living, breathing, encompassing production — is one of those times.


Written by Thornton Wilder

Directed by David Cromer

Through January 27, 2010

At the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow St. at 7th Ave.)

For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit