Actress Helen Hunt and director David Cromer at the Broad Stage in Santa… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
David Cromer never set out to make anybody cry.
"It's not the hardest thing in the world to make people cry. You can make people cry if you play 'Danny Boy,'" says Cromer, director of the production of "Our Town" that will open at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Jan. 18, starring Helen Hunt as the Stage Manager.
So he didn't anticipate the strong emotions his pared, intimate staging of Thornton Wilder's American classic would provoke first in Chicago ("utterly astounding," said Tribune critic Chris Jones) and then off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre, where, to critical raves and word-of-mouth testimonials about its cathartic powers, it officially became the longest-running production in the play's 72-year history, with more than 500 performances.
That record was previously held by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production in 1938, which had 336 performances. Since then, "Our Town," a staple of regional theaters and high school drama clubs (large cast, minimal scenery), is often regarded as a folksy period piece, an homage to small New England towns and homespun values — not so much as must-see radical theater.
Cromer had no intention of breaking records or starting perceptual revolutions.
"I'm a freelance director, I was offered this job, and so I did it. You don't know you're going to end up in a really long, complicated relationship with a play. You'll go, 'Eh, I'll do this job,' and you get through it."
Looking back, though, you can sometimes see the seeds of a great romance destined to blossom.
"A good friend of mine, the actor Ian Westerfer, saw an early preview in Chicago," Cromer recalls. He developed the production there with the company the Hypocrites, who perform in a cozy basement space at Wicker Park's Chopin Theatre.
"We were just furious at Ian because he was laughing and cackling and guffawing. And we're up there acting our … off. Then lights come up and we realize that he's blubbering, red-faced, with projectile tears," Cromer says. "We're like, 'Oh. Wow, wow, wow. What the …?"
Cromer, 47 and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, is at least a finalist for the smartest person in any room. Even his habitual self-deprecation can seem like a form of noblesse oblige. He has a prickly, unsentimental attitude to his work and reacts somewhat irritably to suggestions that his widely admired directorial approach was anything more than a respectful reading of the play.
"The design team and I felt like Wilder's intent was to get rid of artifice, which is why he did things that were relatively radical in 1938 on Broadway: no scenery, a very casual conversational feel."
Cromer's choices, including playing the Stage Manager himself in the initial productions, may have struck traditionalists as bold and edgy, but for him they emerged from the same impulse.
"I wasn't really directing myself because I wasn't really acting," he explains. "The Stage Manager comes out and sets up the play to the audience very straightforwardly: 'We're in the town of Grover's Corners, the train tracks are over there, etc.' It felt artificial to hire an actor to run the evening, and I thought, what if I just did it myself since I was doing it anyway, and that would erase one more layer of artifice."
After a while, though, in New York, "The play kept running, and I had to leave. And while my conceit was very clever, having better actors in the part actually improves the evening."
Replacement Stage Managers during the New York run included Michael Shannon, Michael McKean and Hunt, who is reprising the role here.
"People think the Stage Manager should have a pipe and elbow patches," says Hunt, who while not the first female Stage Manager in "Our Town" history is definitely part of a select group. But she and Cromer stress that his decision to cast her was, as Hunt phrases it, "pure and not some cool, flashy idea."
"I have to say that I had not been that open to the idea of a woman doing it prior to Helen coming up, which I know is a terrible thing to admit," Cromer says. Pressed about why, he shrugs and says, "I don't know." He ultimately offers, "I guess there's something that seems male to me in the emotional recalcitrance of the part."
"But when Helen came up, I realized it was just that no one had suggested the right person. She has that dry wit, that great, dry wit."
Hunt is an "Our Town" veteran, having played Emily in a production at Lincoln Center with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager in 1989. When she saw Cromer's production in New York, as she puts it, she "had to be carried out sobbing." She called him to express her admiration, but it wasn't until about a year later that some lighthearted jokes turned into a serious offer.