A year after Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, Thornton Wilder won it for Our Town. You Can't Take It With You ends its run at North Coast Rep this weekend, while Our Town opens at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.
Thornton Wilder was a classically educated teacher and successful novelist who felt drawn to the stage. He called theatre "the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. ... We live in what is, but we find a thousand ways not to face it. Great theatre strengthens our faculty to face it."
Legendary director Tyrone Guthrie described Wilder as a "ceaseless traveler" and "a notable wit" whose work expresses "between the lines of story or play, one human soul speaking to another."
Wilder's wanderlust began in childhood, as he rarely lived in one place for more than a year or two. Among his California stops were Ojai, near Santa Barbara, and Berkeley, where he attended high school. At Oberlin College he had the reputation of being "worldly yet somehow 'small town.'"
As his first staged original full-length play, Our Town had a rough beginning. After a well-received tryout at Princeton, it bombed in Boston. By then the director and the playwright were no longer speaking. It went to Broadway for one performance and was saved by enthusiastic reviews, but its 10-month run lost money despite the Pulitzer Prize.
It quickly got new life in revivals around the country — a number of them featuring Thornton Wilder playing the key role of the narrator, known as the Stage Manager. He did so again in 1946 at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, where Paul Newman would play that part in 2002. Today it's said that Our Town is performed every day of the year somewhere in the world.
Partly because of its simple staging, it's become a high school staple. But a 2009 off-Broadway production directed by David Cromer became the longest running Our Town in history. Cromer stripped the play of the nostalgia and sentimentality that had upset Wilder in the original production.
In Cromer's configuration, the audience was seated on the same level as the actors, almost within the playing area. I saw a professional production at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1991 (directed by Robert Allan Ackerman) that also did this. It especially made the key scene of the play (you'll know it when you see it) very powerful, one of those unforgettable theatrical moments.
But the play has endured because audiences connect to the words as spoken, whatever the staging. Specific lives are portrayed, governed by the universal truths of life and death. In his Harvard lectures on American characteristics, Wilder said that poet Emily Dickinson solved the American problem of loneliness "by loving the particular while living in the universal."
Audiences can now enter into this unique American classic at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Directed by Patrick Porter, it features Tina Marie Harris as Stage Manager, with Brandi Lacy, Gino Bloombery, Willi and Bill Welton, Charles Beck, Stephen Avis, Carol Martinez, Scott Monadnoick, Dana Zurasky, Shelley Harris, Laureen Savage, Michael and James Swiker. Sets are by Les Izmore, lights by Liz Uhazy, sound by Peter Zuleger, costumes by Denise Ryles and Rosemary Smith.
Our Town previews on Thursday, Oct. 10, and continues on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 3. Tickets: Ferndalerep.org, 707-786-5483.
HSU presents Young Frankenstein: The Musical for two weekends beginning Thursday, Oct. 17. As he did with the stage version of The Producers, Mel Brooks wrote the script, music and lyrics, slightly parodying past Broadway songs.
This 2007 musical comedy version doesn't require familiarity with the classic 1974 Young Frankenstein movie, but key comic moments recur, with some variation and embellishment. Director Rae Robison and designer Derek Lane are applying an industrial "steam punk" (or Frankensteam) approach to the set and the Monster. But the Monster's specific look (and the identity of the well-known local actor who plays him) are secrets for audiences to discover.
Erik Standifird plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the original monster-maker. He played the lead in last year's North Coast Rep production of Anything Goes, the Cole Porter show that inspired Mel Brooks' musical approach to this one. A large ensemble features Anna Duchi, Ashley Adams, Christopher Moreno, Sasha Shay and Keith Brown.
Elisabeth Harrington is music director, Paul Cummings conducts the band, and Lizzie Chapman is dance choreographer. Marissa Menezes designed costumes, Telfer Reynolds the lighting, Charles Thompson the sound.
This comedy about a man, his monster and the women who loved them contains verbal and visible PG humor of a sexual nature — no surprise, it's Mel Brooks. Because it's in the relatively small Gist Hall Theatre, two Saturday matinees are added to the usual schedule of Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. HSUStage.blogspot.com, 707-826-3928.