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TELEVISION HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Our Town' remains an insightful place for a visit

May 23, 2003|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A highly worthy rendering of "Our Town" hits the boards Saturday on Showtime, ever seductive, ever wise, humorous and sad in its expression of universal themes that straddle generations. In the fall, this version of Thornton Wilder's widely beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning play will resurface on PBS as part of its "American Collection" on "Masterpiece Theatre."

As always, the staging is spare, the pace unhurried, the ambience tranquil and muted. Except for the voices of its able ensemble cast, about the loudest sounds you first hear are a distant train whistle, crickets at night and a rooster greeting the morning.

Who would guess from this imposing serenity that "Our Town" takes place at a time of throbbing, pulsating transition, when the 19th century had just given way to the 20th and Americans, all 76 million of them, faced a trailblazing renaissance of technology from lightbulbs and electric fans to phones and movie projectors?

Or that frustration and turbulence were present in the U.S. along with motorcars, a buoyant spirit and optimism about the new century? Although the economy was thriving and personal income soaring, not everyone tasted prosperity. Most African Americans lived in the South, their gains after the Civil War largely erased by poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings, just as photos from 1900 or so capture exploited boy miners, their eyes and teeth flashing white from coal-blackened faces. And in the seventh month of his second term, President William McKinley would be assassinated.

With no television or radio to buzz news around the clock, all of this is distant from the walled-off, day-to-day minutiae of Grover's Corners, Wilder's fictional New Hampshire hamlet where ordinary folks grow up, live, marry and die in relative solitude from 1901 to 1913.

"So ... another day's begun," Paul Newman says wearily. Tie askew, hands dug into his pockets, spectacles pinching his nose, he's the ever-present host-stage manager in a production that was taped at Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut last year before its limited run on Broadway.

We learn from him that Grover's Corners is planning a cornerstone so "people a thousand years from now can say this, this is the way we were."

A newsboy delivers the paper, a milkman and his balky horse begin their rounds, a constable patrols the street, a teacher gets married, the choir organist turns out to be a bitter drunkard, and so on and so on. But mostly, Wilder centers his flashbacks and flash forward on two families as they chitchat about the weather, dwell on the mundane and tend to the trivia of their lives.

Living side by side in Grover's Corners are the Gibbses (Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson) and Mr. and Mrs. Webb (Jeffrey DeMunn and Jane Curtin). Dr. Gibbs is the town physician, Mr. Webb its newspaper editor.

The Gibbses' son, George (Ben Fox), and the Webbs' daughter, Emily (a radiant Maggie Lacey), will become sweethearts and marry after high school. Then nine years later, Emily will die in childbirth, Newman informs us with no trace of sentiment as town historian, an all-knowing observer who transcends the past, present and future.

Directed here by James Naughton, "Our Town" is gentle but not uncritical, its characters positioned as metaphors for a society that too often takes much of life for granted. It dotes on their durability and their commitment to duty and tradition, but faults them for failing to seize the moment and appreciate the beauty and goodness around them.

Watching the play allows you to do just that, however. It's like turning up a piece of ground to observe the fascinating life teeming underneath -- the magic of the commonplace -- in contrast to the faux realism in prime-time shows transfixing TV viewers in the opening years of this century.

Although "Our Town" was first staged in 1938, Grover's Corners still delivers, and with hardly any tweaking. Despite being provincial, these sturdy residents generate truth and insights into human behavior far beyond the fiction of today's TV bobbleheads masquerading as reality.

In some ways, this is a play of its time. In this place, there's "no reading at the table," kids mustn't gobble their food or slouch, a boy lobbies for a 25-cent bump in his allowance, a mother instructs her daughter to "pick up your feet," and teenagers George and Emily haltingly affirm their love over strawberry ice cream sodas.

Soon it's 1904, a downpour is soaking their wedding day, and the groom's mother, exercising her prerogative for perhaps the last time, insists that he put on his rubbers before going next door to pop in on his soon-to-be in-laws before they all move on to the church.

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