Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Classic Martin

Emily and George get lost in the stars in Our Town.

Not so long ago, Boston was home to three great directors - Nicholas Martin, Robert Woodruff, and Charles Towers. These days, only Towers remains (at the Merrimack), but we still get occasional visits from the other two, and this season you have (or had) the chance to see a double header from Martin - Our Town just closed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, while the Huntington will open its fall season with his production of Bus Stop.

Both seem like "naturals" for Nicky, as he's universally known, but of course Our Town is the deeper play, and I had high hopes that the Williamstown production might prove as perfect as his best work at the Huntington (She Loves Me, Present Laughter). Alas, it doesn't quite reach that pinnacle, due to two of its central performances, but it's still easily the best production of Our Town I've seen, and will certainly be remembered fondly (I didn't catch the most recent Broadway revival, but this is surely superior to the Paul Newman version of several years ago). And for fans of meta-theatre, you can't get much more meta than this version, which is being performed only an hour or two from Peterborough, upon which Thornton Wilder modeled the eponymous "Grover's Corners" from his cottage at the MacDowell Colony. (As a little nod to that fact, Martin has cast an actual local professor as his lecturer on the region.)

This doesn't, however, make the production much more resonant than usual (most of the actors are from New York, after all), and one walks away from this rendition musing on the way that, perhaps unintentionally, it highlights one of the inherent difficulties of the director's craft. Like his recent The Corn is Green, Our Town showcases Martin's superb directorial intelligence - there's a subtle flow to the blocking, and moment after moment of insight and clarity in the shape and construction of the scenes; and the design work, by David Korins and Kenneth Posner, toys with Wilder's famously bare stage just enough but not too much.

But the production also reveals that when an actor doesn't have quite the emotional depths for his or her role, or is cast just a hairsbreadth away from the ideal - well, all the directorial craft in the world can never quite disguise that gap, particularly when (as in Martin's case), the director is by instinct attuned to questions of balance and proportion rather than "intensity" or shock.

And this Our Town is, I'm afraid, complicated by the fact that the versatile Campbell Scott's Stage Manager fails to grow from folksy irony to slightly-chilling stature (as he should). And as Emily Webb, the beautiful Brie Larson conveys tomboyish innocence perfectly but only seems partly able to access the role's streams of deeper feeling. Compensating for these slight gaps, however, are masterfully low-key performances from John Rubinstein and (especially) Dylan Baker as Doc Gibbs and Mr. Webb, respectively, and a delightfully awkward turn from Will Rogers as young George. There were also memorable cameos from Jon Patrick Walker as Simon Stimson and Emma Rosenthal as Rebecca Gibbs - and it was fun to catch local star Nancy Carroll in a short, but funny, stint as the gossipy Mrs. Soames.

And Martin does, in the end, convey the great emotional verities of the play, which still, I'm glad to report, communicates the terrible truth that life slips away from us before we appreciate it with a power all the more piercing because it's so unassuming. (How this play got a reputation for sentimentality remains a mystery.) This production in particular, it seemed to me, drew out the author's (at right, in his commemorative stamp) absorption with death in a subtle, but matter-of-fact, style (Emily's demise in childbirth often comes as a shock, but here Martin gently highlights the many hints of mortality that come before it). This didn't stop many in the audience from openly weeping at the climax nonetheless. And I confess I found it hard not to join in.