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An Our Town for Every Time

Since its premiere in 1938, Thorton Wilder’s Our Town has gone on to become one of the most frequently performed plays in America. Playwright Edward Albee called the drama “one of the toughest, saddest, most brutal plays,” yet also describes the show as “beautiful” and “gloriously funny.” This expansive emotional scope may help explain why directors continue to revive and reconsider Our Town again and again.

Nickolas Vaughan as George and Alyssa Gagarin in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Our Town,” directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning script has inspired movies, musicals and a ballet; the lead role of the Stage Manager has been performed by Paul Newman, Helen Hunt and the playwright himself. Ford’s Theatre is proud to present a new production in honor of the 75th anniversary of the play’s premiere. Director Stephen Rayne brings his own fresh perspective to the material,  which inspired us to take a closer look at how productions of Our Town have changed over the past 75 years.

The Broadway debut of Our Town thrilled and shocked 1930s theatergoers. Variety predicted the show would be remembered long after its premiere—as a flop. The review reads, “It probably represents an all-time high in experimental theatre… It will probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent.”

Portia as Stage Manager in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Our Town,” directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Brooks Atkinson praised the original production in the New York Times, but also noted the play’s unusual form. He wrote, “Our Town has escaped from the formal barrier of modern theatre.” The show’s lack of props and scenery, Wilder’s commonplace dialogue and the Stage Manager’s direct address to the audience contradicted current theater traditions for a stark, modernist affect. Yet the universal themes of the show came as a balm to a nation seeking normalcy after World War I and the Great Depression. The show proved a success, and in the following two years Our Town reached an even greater audience through a radio performance and a feature film.

Wilder’s masterpiece went on to inspire countless productions, including a 1955 television musical featuring Frank Sinatra, a Tony Award-winning revival in 1988 with Spalding Gray, and an opera composed by Ned Rorem. The play received critical acclaim again in 2009 when David Cromer directed a radical Off-Broadway production that was hailed as a vehicle transporting the story into the 21st century. Cromer stripped Our Town to its bare roots by dressing the cast in modern clothing and casting himself as a blunt, straightforward Stage Manager. The play was performed in the round, with audience members on the same level as the stage.

The Ford’s Theatre production of “Our Town,” directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Charles Isherwood described the intimate effect in a New York Times review. [He writes, “When the play moves to the heights of the town cemetery in the third act, a little chill may crawl up your spine. The place looks uncomfortably populated. You might even feel an inclination to check your own pulse.” Cromer’s Our Town remains the longest-running production of the play to date.

The 2013 Ford’s Theatre production represents another exciting take on the text. Before directing the play, Stephen Rayne conducted research in New England and spoke to Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew and literary executor, in order to understand how to translate the material to a modern audience while remaining true to Wilder’s original vision.

As a British director examining what he calls “the most American play in the American canon,” Rayne aims to create an Our Town that any audience member can recognize. He enacts this vision with a racially diverse cast, including African-American actress Portia as the Stage Manager, and a bare-bones design scheme that avoids cultural connotations.

Portia as Stage Manager in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Our Town,” directed by Stephen Rayne. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Rayne’s production also emphasizes the timelessness of Wilder’s story in the context of today’s hectic society that is always focused on tomorrow, housed in a theatre that serves to remind people of our national history. It’s an “Our Town for our time,” and a strong indicator that Thornton Wilder’s most popular play will continue to astound and entrance audiences for decades to come.

Sara Cohen graduated from the University of Rochester with an English degree, a history minor and an avid love of theater.