There's a danger in presenting a theater classic — the temptation to play it as an Important Work or, worse still, the need for directors to use the script as a mere jumping-off point for somewhat questionable interpretations.
Thorton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town faces those dangers, only doubled. If ever a script seemed vulnerable to reinvention and/or ponderous exaltation, this minimalist play about the absolute "ordinary-ness" of life is it. And it's a big relief to congratulate director Ted Pappas for steering well clear of both traps in this latest production at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Set in New Hampshire at the beginning of the 20th century, Our Town plots a dozen years in the life of tiny Grover's Corners. A character known as The Stage Manager acts as our tour guide, introducing the people, places, facts and history of the story, and we follow the Gibbs and Webb families through weddings, deaths, first love and heartbreak.
It's Wilder's design that the play is performed without sets or props — just tables, chairs and ladders — forcing our attention to his story and his writing.
I'm probably not smart enough to understand everything Wilder is saying; maybe it's that the insignificance of living is matched only by the imperative to live. But I do know something about writing, and what the Public does is present Wilder's script in all of its genuine brilliance, with the company giving great voice to glorious poetry he creates from simplicity. How a play this unadorned can be so richly textured is nothing short of a miracle.
Pappas neatly moves the play along without calling attention to the pace. There's some subtext that might have gotten lost in the shuffle (and the sit-com-styled second act feels forced). But that's infinitely preferable to leaden, portentous productions I've seen elsewhere.
A subtle and nimble 24-person cast is lead by an affable, expository Tom Atkins. And I want to make special mention of Bridget Connors, Cary Anne Spear, John Shepard and Marc Epstein as the various parents, and of Daniel Krell's sad turn as Stimson.
But mostly, I want to thank the Public for this clear and precise production of a theater classic.