`Our Town': renewal, not just revival. Thornton Wilder's play now seen as a masterwork

Our Town Play by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Gregory Mosher. It would be hard to imagine a lovelier holiday treat for playgoers than the 50th anniversary revival of ``Our Town,'' at the Lyceum Theatre. While exploring the darker visions of this Thornton Wilder classic, the production, staged by Gregory Mosher for the Lincoln Center Theater company, responds winningly to the rich humor and humanity, the joy and lyricism, of the playwright's salute to the 2,642 townsfolk of Grover's Corners, N.H., back when the century was young.

During the decades in which ``Our Town'' has become recognized as a masterwork of American drama, audiences have grown familiar with its once relatively novel form: the curtainless and almost bare stage, the elementary scenic props, the actors' miming. Yet a production like the one at the Lyceum finds the fresh inspiration that qualifies it as a renewal rather than merely a revival.

With the ever-present Stage Manager (Spalding Gray) to supply background and commentary, the strengths of ``Our Town'' emerge gently and gradually in the building of relationships. Dr. Gibbs and his wife (James Rebhorn and Frances Conroy), Editor Webb and his wife (Peter Maloney and Roberta Maxwell), and their respective children create the interlocked family portraits on which everything else depends. Here as elsewhere, the players cherish and embody the affection that Wilder poured into their fashioning, even though something might be done to improve the consistency of the New Hampshire accents.

Meanwhile, the community life of Grover's Corners pursues its everyday course. Howie Newsome (W.H. Macy) delivers the milk; Joe Crowell (Joey Shea) delivers the morning paper; Constable Warren (Tom Brennan) patrols the quiet streets. Grover's Corners folks didn't start locking their doors until tales of imagined burglaries began circulating.

At the heart of ``Our Town,'' of course, is the story of Emily Webb (Penelope Ann Miller) and George Gibbs (Eric Stoltz). In a pair of endearing performances, Miss Miller and Mr. Stoltz show us these growing-up young people as Emily and George saw them in the time of their lives. They emerge naturally and simply from next-door-neighbor family backgrounds to reach (in the irresistible soda-fountain scene) with timidity and wonder toward the romance and brief marriage for which Wilder has destined them.

The joys shared by the young people heighten the anguish following Emily's death in childbirth. In the poignant third act, Emily makes a ghostly return home from the hillside cemetery to relive her 12th birthday among her family. Miss Miller meets the demands of this emotional high point with heart-rending pathos.

As the Stage Manager, Mr. Gray takes a casual approach - in both dress and manner - to the role created by Frank Craven and played most recently on Broadway by Henry Fonda. Mr. Gray's dry offhandedness could stand an ingredient of warmth which might make him a more congenial interpreter of life in Grover's Corners. It may be, however, that director Mosher wished to use the Stage Manager as a contemporary liaison between the 1988 spectator and the long-ago events being recalled. In any case, this well-known performance artist, writer, and film actor endows the proceedings with humor and crisp authority.

So populous a play as ``Our Town'' depends on many individual contributions. The large and admirable Lincoln Center Theater cast includes Jeff Weiss (as the haunted Simon Stimson), Bill Alton (as well-versed Professor Willard), Lydia Kelly (Rebecca Gibbs), and Shane Culkin (Wally Webb). Douglas Stein's bare-stage setting, Kevin Rigdon's lighting, and Jane Greenwood's costumes enhance the nostalgic mellowness of this tribute to Wilder and the world he so lovingly commemorated.

The revival is scheduled to run through Jan. 15.

A 50th anniversary celebration may occasion a footnote to theatrical history. When ``Our Town'' opened in Boston, press and public response was so discouraging that producer-director Jed Harris was on the verge of closing the production. Fortunately, among those who saw the tryout was playwright Marc Connelly, who said, ``Jed, you're crazy. This play is going to win the Pulitzer Prize.''

So it did. And much, much more.

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