This review was originally published in 2009 in the Windy City Times.
David Cromer has a profound, unusually acute understanding of the aching, eternal poetry of melancholia. As for the mordant, pitch-black humor that accompanies (and allows us to survive) such bottomless sorrow – he gets that also. It’s his deep comprehension of that duality and his ability to bring it into perfect diamond-sharp focus on stage that makes Cromer one of Chicago’s most gifted directors. In his brilliant, minimalist staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, he strips Wilder’s well-worn chestnut clean of sentiment and schmaltz and reveals a fable of Darwinian brutality and vitality.
Through the decades, Wilder’s story has too often disintegrated into a three-act amalgamation of cloying, sentimental clichés, a Norman Rockwell-rosy view of small-town Americana that never really existed. Grover’s Corners as we usually see it? A soft-focus view of imaginary nostalgia. Not here. Playing the narrator/Stage Manager as well as directing, Cromer spins a timeless story that is equal parts harsh despair and sublime beauty.
The duality blazes throughout: If only the denizens of Our Town had the perspective of the universe – if they could see how even the most cataclysmic events of their lives were only infinitesimally tiny blips in an unknowable, infinitely big picture –they’d despair at their smallness. And they’d be galvanized by the glorious, overwhelming beauty of mortal life. When Mrs. Soames, speaking from the grave, says “My, wasn’t life awful – and wonderful,” the moment of one of wrenching, exquisite clarity.
Wilder’s story is deceptively uneventful. In tiny Grover’s Corners, Emily Webb and George Gibbs grow up, fall in love and get married. Their days roll by in small moments and routine waves of comfortable predictability. But in the quiet repetition of the everyday, Cromer illuminates both the invisible ties that bind us all to something infinitely larger than the human race and the plodding mortality that defines us.
All that remains of ancient Babylon, one of the greatest civilizations in known history, is the names of a few kings, the Stage Manager notes wryly. And yet, Wilder writes, “there’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” That contrast between the corrosively hilarious nonsense that shapes humans’ nasty, short and brutish time walking the earth (“Make a few decisions, and wham! Suddenly you’re 70! ”) and our link to something endless and cosmic is at the core of Our Town. It’s a contrast Cromer defines it with luminous grace.
There’s no scenery, props or costumes of note. The lights don’t come down on the audience until the final act. The result is that the audience becomes part of Grover Corners, living, dying and being buried right alongside generations of townsfolk. The cast is remarkable, but in addition to Cromer, exceptional heartbreak comes from Jonathan Mastro who provides both original music and a tragic chorus in the character of a gifted artist unable to outrun his own demons.
The Hypocrites Theatre’s staging of Our Town ran through June 8, 2009 at the Chopin Theatre, 1453 W. Division.