When a revival of Our Town opened at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 1988, a clever ad campaign juxtaposed the title of Thornton Wilder’s classic play with a photograph of the earth swimming in space. The striking image both caught the eye and made a point: This delicate but durable drama, with its unique mix of mysticism and minutia, isn’t really about a tiny New England hamlet. It’s about all of humanity.
True enough. And yet, the 1938 play is also about community—the ties that bind neighbors, for better or worse, and the shared rituals that help us express our joy and sorrow. Thus it feels entirely appropriate that when the Santa Barbara Theatre opens its production Friday night at the Lobero Theater, it will feature a cast entirely made up of local actors.
With Westmont College theater professor John Blondell—a Santa Barbara resident since 1983—at the helm, this will truly be an Our Town by, and for, our town.
“The cast feels invested in this,” said UCSB theater instructor Irwin Appel, who is playing the key role of the Stage Manager. “They feel they have ownership in this project. John has set a tone of rehearsal as conversation, which I really appreciate. He’s not afraid to take time in rehearsal and ask for people’s thoughts.”
“My specialty area for my Ph.D. (which he earned at UCSB) was American theater and drama, so this is a return,” Blondell noted. But it’s also a continuation. As artistic director of the locally based Lit Moon Theatre Company, Blondell has specialized in visually oriented theater, in which movement, music and poetic stage imagery are at least as important as the spoken words. He has applied this approach successfully to Shakespeare, condensing those classics in an attempt to convey their essence.
In contrast, he promises to not cut a word of Our Town. But his experience with shaping subtle body language has proven extremely valuable in staging this play, which famously has no scenery.
“I love the simplicity of Wilder’s approach,” Blondell said. “He has stripped away all artifice. We just have chairs on the stage, which become so many things. First they’re chairs in a kitchen, then they’re pews in a church, and then they’re gravestones. I love how, in the theater, simple things can be enlarged in our imaginations.
“There’s a huge pantomimic aspect to the play,” he added. “We started off in rehearsal being realistic and detailed (as a character mimed cleaning a window or baking a cake). But the more I worked with that, the more I realized it wasn’t the right approach for us. It was too busy. So we’re totally simplifying that—focusing on certain simple, selected gestures that bring out a sense of how ubiquitous they are in our lives.”
Our Town, for those who only know it through distant memories of half-forgotten productions, is set in fictional Grover’s Corners, Connecticut, between the years of 1901 and 1913. Taking a microscope to the mundane, it portrays ordinary people living ordinary lives, passing from youth to maturity to, in some cases, death.
The central figures are George Gibbs, a doctor’s son, and Emily Webb, daughter of the newspaper editor. They grow up, get married, and learn through painful experience that life is fragile and precious.
“Wilder warns against making the last act over-sentimentalized,” Blondell said. “These people, at this time, in this place, have a strong sense of what is ‘proper,’ and how much emotion to show in a given situation. Part of the power of the play comes from knowing how much emotion is there, but holding it back.”
Appel seconded that thought. His character, the Stage Manager, is the audience’s guide through the play; he introduces the characters, sets the scene, and occasionally comments on the action.
“The stage directions call for a very specific image – a man with a New England accent, puffing on a pipe,” he said. “But I’m consciously avoiding an aww-shucks, homespun, sappy approach to the role. It can’t be maudlin.”
Writing in The New York Times last year, Frank Rich suggested this Depression-era play might have particularly strong resonance in our time of economic malaise. Perhaps in this time of scarcity and vulnerability, we can better appreciate the play’s message of focusing on what really matters.
“There seems to be a resurgence of doing this play in this country over the past few years,” Appel said. “There are a lot of productions of Our Town going on at major theaters. There’s something about the questions the play raises that’s appealing to a lot of people right now.”
Then again, Our Town has never really gone away, thanks to numerous high school and college productions. Blondell understands why it appeals to students, but he adds that it’s a tricky play for even theater veterans (like the professional actors he is directing) to pull off. Different scenes are written in different styles, which must ultimately blend seamlessly for the show to achieve its overwhelming emotional impact.
Adding another level of complication, members of his large cast come from varied backgrounds. Some such as Laurel Lyle are used to a traditional, text-based approach to theater, while others like Stan Hoffman and Mitchell Thomas – veterans of Blondell’s Lit Moon productions – are steeped in a movement-oriented approach.
To get everyone relaxed and on the same page, Blondell began rehearsals with two full days of improvisation. “We started with physical exercises and impressions, which all came out of the text,” he said. “I’d set up a circumstance and allow it to unfold. The actors invented their own patterns of movement and simple gestures. So much of what we did during those first two days has become a basis for our staging of certain scenes.
“In the Lobero, I didn’t want this to be simply a play with everybody talking,” he added. “It had to have a visual element. I wanted there to be something to watch. I wanted to develop a strong sense of visual storytelling and oral storytelling, both, so that the story is told through our eyes and ears to our hearts.”
Our Town is ultimately a spiritual play, one that depicts the impermanence of our existence, the transformational power of love, and the importance of living fully in the present moment. In Blondell’s words, it taps into “powerful sources of meaning that are hidden, intangible, but are still felt.”
“A poetic use of the stage is fused with mythic content,” he said. “It’s compelling and striking and wonderful.” And, for the moment, ours.