At the Charles Playhouse, 76 Warrenton Street
"It might be argued," wrote Donald Malcolm, reviewing the Circle in the Square production, that Our Town is not a play at all, but a novel galvanized!" Taking over the function of a novel's omniscient narrator, Wilder's Stage Manager, the instrument by which he creates the largely invisible, but believable world of Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, must be impeccable in both manner and dialogue. Edward Finnegan, the Stage Manager in the Charles Players' production is all this and more, and most of the play's success can be attributed to his well-timed gestures of hat and pipe and his thoroughly "North of Boston" accent.
Feeling that the plays of his day "tried to capture verisimilitude, not reality," Wilder set out to write plays that would exist against the largest dimensions of time and space. Our Town solves the problems of stagecraft by avoiding them. "There's some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery," comments the Stage Manager when two trellises are pushed out onto the stage. There are lighting directions--and Lewis Lehman's lighting was effective--but one has the feeling that the play could get by on the one bare bulb which shines on the stage at the beginning of the first act.
Our Town's first act survives largely because of audience interest and trust in the Yankee ingenuity of the Stage Manager. One believes that there is a "real" town, which he is groping to describe, and one is willing to forgive the pedantic local professor who gives the geological facts about the town, the "questions from the audience," and the rambling generalizations of Editor Webb of The Sentinel. Like a New England town meeting, the play has a chairman, an avowed purpose, and a sense that everyone in the audience must cooperate.
Dealing with subjects as homely as breakfast, gossip, and walking home from school, actors are very likely to betray the fact they are acting, but this presentation of the adult world of Grovers Corners was nearly flawless. Wilder's characters remind you of people you know, despite differences in dress and accent. And the cast, especially Dixi DeWitt (Mrs. Webb) and Edward O'Callahan (Dr. Gibbs) made these characters real, in Wilder's sense of universal types.
The children in the play lend some disturbing elements--they were often self-consciously cute and occasionally betrayed sophisticated accents which grated against the rural informality of the play. But otherwise, from the alcoholic organist to the milkman, there was little that seemed out of the Grovers Corners "ordinary."
Perhaps less can be said for John Cazale and Mary Weed, who played the lovers George Gibbs and Emily Webb. Mr. Cazale's hair is somewhat thinner than one would expect in a sixteen-year-old, and at times he mumbled more like a troubled suburbanite than a New Hampshire swain. Certainly nothing could be said against Miss Weed's interpretation of Emily, which became truly moving in the final scene of the play. But she looked "dressed down" to meet the sixteen-year-old requirement, and was simply not the willowy schoolgirl expected.
Our Town and the Charles Playhouse production of it perform the difficult artistic trick of dealing with sentimental subjects without being sentimental. And the Charles Playhouse, with its Grange Hall intimacy and its large, informal stage extending out into the audience is truly an ideal setting for this most American of plays.