Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is such a beloved piece of American theater that it's easy to forget that many people, especially younger ones, have never seen it. Once a staple of nearly every high school and community theater across the country, in recent years it seems as if actual performances of it have waned, says J. Daniel Herring, director of the new production at Fresno State.
So with the play's 75th anniversary this year, it seemed a perfect time to revive the show for new audiences.
Here's a rundown on the show, which opens Friday night at the university's Woods Theatre:
The play: We meet two average families — the Gibbses and the Webbs — in the 1903 small town of Grover's Corners. The universal themes of everyday life, love, loss, joy and grief are conveyed in a minimalist style with no set. Wilder received the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama for the work. The anniversary edition includes some of the notes Wilder made about the play.
The narration: Perhaps the most famous narrator in stage history, the Stage Manager propels the action along and sometimes becomes a part of it. He's joined by a Greek chorus-style ensemble, whose members play minor roles and act as commentators.
Nonrealism: "Our Town" is known for its metatheatricality, or the idea that the audience is always reminded that it's in a theater watching a stage production — as opposed to realism, in which a viewer is expected to "lose himself" in the action. The narrator and chorus help strengthen this sense of nonrealism. At the same time, the Webb and Gibbs families are depicted in an intensely realistic style.
Herring's concept: As director, he says he decided to latch onto these two "worlds" in the play — the realistic and nonrealistic — and embrace them both. The challenge is in blending the two styles together so they complement each other. He's happy for the chance to stage it in the intimate Woods Theatre, which lets the audience get close to the action.
The costumes: Designer Elizabeth Payne crafted distinctive looks that differentiate the realistic and nonrealistic styles. The Webb and Gibbs families are dressed in period costumes. The narrator and chorus members, meanwhile, are costumed in what Herring calls a "Neo Victorian" style, which incorporates elements from the era but with a twist.
Stage Manager connection: Herring played the role in high school. What he remembers most about the experience was that it convinced him he wanted to pursue a career in theater. In a recent rehearsal, Herring had this advice for Jacob Rico, who plays the role in the Fresno State production: "You have to think about the Stage Manager as a storyteller. He has stories in his head he already wants to share with the audience, but he also discovers stories along the way he wants to tell."
Why is "Our Town" a classic? Herring suggests that it tackles three of the great themes of literature: why we love our lives; why we love being in love; and the heartbreak of how hard it is to let go of those two things. "Some plays give us one of those things, or perhaps two," he says. "But this one gives a glimpse of all those things, and it does it in a way that is timeless."
"Our Town," through Nov. 9, Woods Theatre, Fresno State. fresnostate.edu/theatrearts, (559) 278-7512. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, email@example.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.