by Nita Congress · June 24, 2014
Nita Congress comments on Our Town at Green-Wood Cemetery
“Yes, beautiful spot up here. Mountain laurel and li-lacks. I often wonder why people like to be buried in Woodlawn or Brooklyn when they might pass the same time up here in New Hampshire.”
Well, here I have to disagree with Thornton Wilder’s venerable Stage Manager. Having spent the Solstice Evening 2014 in the lush greens and grays of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, watching the stars rise over Grover’s Corners with the skyline of New York looming behind, I think the choice is much more difficult than Granite State partiality would imply.
All of which is to say that the opportunity to see Our Town in the majesty of this 176-year-old historic park is not to be missed. Watching the sun set, sensing the segue from twilight to dusk, seeing the first stars appear as the great trees fade from brilliant greens to monochrome slate against a blackening sky—this puts you firmly in the mind and heart of Our Town, which is all about appreciating your place against the vast eternities of nature and the universe. (I am assuming readers know the plot, and so do not summarize it below; if not, see here.)
Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town in reaction to the overly particularized, “real” theater of his day, which he found distancing and emotionally diminished. Director James Presson and his cast get this. Presson pushes the boundary of the usually setless staging of the play to encompass costumelessness as well, so cast members wear contemporary clothing. Color-blind (and age-free) casting strips further specificities away. For some members of the audience—particularly those less familiar with the work—this took some getting used to and made figuring out who was who a bit difficult. This difficulty is unfortunately compounded by a necessary evil: a sound system that channels all voices to a single side speaker, making it tough at times to match character with speech. But the production works hard to mitigate this, with the staging effectively highlighting (and actors sometimes literally pointing to) focal characters and action.
Presson has tried to doubly exploit the unique Brooklyn site: one strand of his approach works and one does not. His success lies in using the beautiful physical space—well—beautifully, framing his action on a hillside, moving his cast fluidly up, down, and around tombstones, monuments, trees, rocks, bats, and birds. Not so successful are his efforts to interject a hip Brooklyn ethos into the play. The austere piece cannot accommodate these, and the punk touches of escalated expression and thoughtless cool ultimately bounce off—sadly, not without inflicting a little damage. But overall, the tone is sincere rather than ironic—which is right, or else why do this play at all? I did, however, dislike the occasional casual cruelties which characterize our time rather than illuminate the play, and decry in particular the cigarettes at gravesite: if Our Town does not command respect and decorum, the recognition of the site’s “permanent residents” as the Green-Wood brochure terms them, should.
But none of these quibbles are intended to detract from the production’s noble aim. Our Town, as Wilder wrote, “is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” And here at Green-Wood, on a dazzling June night, that value is most satisfyingly to be found.