Okay, so I’ve been cutting a few corners during my present, month-long stay in New York City; but I wasn’t about to cut Grover’s Corners. Our Town, that is, a new production of which is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. These days, there isn’t much on Broadway to tempt me into letting go of whatever is left in my wallet. I mean, Shrek the Musical? What’s next, Pac-Man of the Opera? A concert version of Saved by the Bell? Secret Squirrel on Ice? I am all for revisiting the familiar—a tendency to which this journal attests—as long as I feel that such recyclings are worth my impecunious (hence increasingly persnickety) while—and theatrical retreads of The Addams Family, 9 to 5 or Spider-Man are not. Come to think of it, I had never seen a performance of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, which I always thought of as the ideal radio play. Well, let me tell you, David Cromer sure made me see it differently.
Our Town was produced on the air at least three times, even though the Lux Radio Theatre version (6 May 1940) is a reworking of the screenplay, replete with a tacky, tagged-on Hollywood ending and ample space for commercial copy between the acts. Wilder’s 1938 play is decidedly radiogenic in its installation of a narrator (or Stage Manager) and its insistence of doing away with props or scenery. The Barrow Street Theater production seemed to be in keeping with the playwright’s instructions; and I was all prepared to watch it with my eyes closed.
There are two tables on the small stage; and the props do not amount to more than a hill of string beans. The Stage Manager points into the audience, inviting us to envision a small town in New Hampshire, anno 1901:
Along here’s a row of stores. Hitching posts and horse blocks in front of them. First automobile’s going to come along in about five years belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen . . . lives in the big white house up on the hill.
Here’s the grocery store and here’s Mr. Morgan’s drugstore. Most everybody in town manages to look into those two stores once a day.
Public School’s over yonder. High School’s still farther over. Quarter of nine mornings, noontimes, and three o’clock afternoons, the hull town can hear the yelling and screaming from those schoolyards.
Some eyes followed the pointed finger in my direction, faces in the crowd briefly looking past me in hopes of making out the Methodist and Unitarian churches just behind my back. Now, I’m not saying that the actors were not worth looking at, Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb being particularly charming. Still, at the end of the first act, I could not figure out what Frank Scheck of the New York Post referred to as “revolutionary staging.” Two tables, eight chairs, string beans?
By act three, I understood. David Cromer defies Wilder’s instructions (“No curtain. No scenery”)—and to startling effect. I never thought that the smell of bacon could be so overwhelming, so urgent and direct. Sure, it has often made my mouth water—but my eyes? Whether or not you are a staunch vegetarian, there is reality in the scent, just as there is a revelation behind that curtain. Our Town may be a wonderful piece of pantomime; but Cromer deserves some props.
“Oh, Mama, just look me one minute though you really saw me,” the dead Emily implores the unseeing childhood vision of her mother. “Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” Seeing this fragrant scene acted out made me realize anew the importance of coming to all of one’s senses, of partaking by taking in, of grabbing hold of the moment (which we Germans call an Augenblick, a glance) by beholding what could be gone at the blink of an eye.
“Our Town,” Campbell Playhouse (12 May 1939)
“Our Town,” Lux Radio Theatre (6 May 1940)
4 Replies to ““Chew that bacon good and slow”: Our Town Like You’ve Never Seen It”
Pac-Man of the Opera. Funny!I'm afraid the smell of bacon would have me swooning. Much too romantic for that script.
Well, there is romance in the script, the deceptively quaint or nostalgic, which is why the ending can be such an eye-opener. It was a \”wake up and smell the bacon\” kind of experience for me. Naturalistic rather than romantic.
I'm with you, HH — the production's a mindbender. The bacon scene was overwhelming, and I was just as taken with the hyper-utilitarian opening, which had the plainness of a pre-show announcement. In other productions the Stage Manager is a gemutlich old Yankee — a character in the play — but here he's a contemporary of ours, the actual stage manager of the theatre, dazzlingly devoid of suspenders. Somehow that made the starkness of the production radical again, as it must have been to its first audience. Somewhere I read that the staging was influenced by radio drama. I can see that — it's like the obverse of radio's power of suggestion. Sometimes words, light & shadows are more impressive than a helicopter.
Unlike that helicopter, or the cooked breakfast in A Catered Affair, the added slice of bacon is no mere gimmick in this production. It was a revelation to me how radical old-fashioned stage realism can be, a kind of validation you’d hardly expect from Our Town. By the time the curtain was drawn, the familiar had become the uncanny, and the end a reality I had (and have) to face.