A decade ago, director David Cromer blew the dust off Our Town. His refreshingly unsentimental interpretation, which ran nearly two years in New York, mined Thornton Wilder’s great slice of American life for the dark and disquieting undercurrents hidden beneath its cozy surface. It offered a model for treating classic works as serious, living texts, stripping away the varnish added by nearly a century of high-school English classes and community theater mawkishness.
In contrast, the production that plays through Aug. 25 at People’s Light in Malvern seems intent on restoring every creak. This does the author, and the audience, a major disservice. Director Abigail Adams may have ideas about how to approach this unassuming yet expansive cornerstone of the theatrical canon, but they end up buried beneath a raft of hoary clichés that move the work ever further from its emotional center.
The questionable choices begin before the play proper. As the spectators find their seats, several performers engage in a preshow hootenanny that seems better suited to Garrison Keillor than Grover’s Corners. Although Our Town has become a byword for American drama, the work itself hardly engages with Americana, so being serenaded with Stephen Foster and “Shine On, Harvest Moon” makes little dramaturgical sense.
The voices and playing are pleasant enough, but the musical framing device dissolves almost immediately, despite the casting of David M. Lutken (a musician known for devising shows about Woody Guthrie) in the central role of the Stage Manager. Lutken proves he’s not much of an actor without his guitar — most of his performance reads like a square-jawed Jimmy Stewart impersonation.
The music is replaced by an unnerving chorus of Foley effects that punctuate nearly every moment. We hear the rigid slam of a screen door, the cackling caw of a rooster, and the low whir of rain splashing on tombstones in a cemetery. Aside from the annoyance factor, this distracting soundtrack makes painfully obvious all that should be subtle and suggested. (Wilder famously requested that the play be staged as simply as possible, to allow the audience maximum use of its imagination.) After a while, I felt like I was listening to drive-time radio.
Against this cheap backdrop, no member of the large ensemble has much success creating character. Instead, they all perform caricatures of beatific folksiness, with nary a semblance of actual inner life. The worst offender is Claire Inie-Richards, who astonishes in terms of sheer wrongheadedness as a charmless, too contemporary Emily Webb. She spends more time willing herself to cry than trying to communicate what Emily is crying about.
Near the end of Our Town, Emily asks the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” The answer, of course, is no, a point this production painfully proves over and over.
Through Aug. 25 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern.