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The Graying of Lookingglass

Lookingglass's production of Our Town is haunted by the company's own history.

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Our Town Lookingglass Theatre Company

Two specters haunt Lookingglass Theatre Company's intriguing but flawed production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The first is David Cromer's hugely effective staging of the same play for the Hypocrites, which started in the basement studio at Chopin Theatre last year and is now running off-Broadway, with Cromer reprising his role as the Stage Manager. The other is the history of Lookingglass itself.

Codirectors Jessica Thebus and Anna D. Shapiro don't refer even indirectly to Cromer's version, but it remains constantly in mind because it's so recent and so revelatory. Cromer stripped the play to its bare bones, removing the layers of sentiment and nostalgia Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winner has accrued thanks to countless high school and community theater productions intent on presenting its setting—tiny Grover's Corners, New Hampshire—as a haven of quaint Americana.

Like his equally misunderstood friend Robert Frost, Wilder wasn't as cuddly as he's come to seem. The play's three acts—covering daily life, marriage, and death over the course of a dozen quiet years—present a pleasant enough picture of turn-of-the-century small-town America, with its fundamentally decent inhabitants and moonlit, heliotrope-scented evenings. But darker currents glide beneath. The alcoholic church organist Simon Stimson remains a tormented outsider throughout. The wedding of high school sweethearts George Gibbs and Emily Webb is marred by their stark terror in the face of an uncertain future. And in the last act, Emily, who has died in childbirth at 26, begs to reexperience just one day of her life only to find she can't bear her family's apparent obliviousness to the world's transience. "Now you know," jeers Simon when her spirit returns to the cemetery. "That's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness."

Still, as another dead soul tells Simon, "That ain't the whole truth and you know it." Wilder imbues the play with a sense that life's smallest events are themselves imbued with a universal beauty, despite—or maybe because of—their impermanence. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Wilder only became a New Englander as an adult, but he understood transcendence as well as Emerson or Thoreau ever had.

Cromer's sober, elemental handling of the text did away with sentiment altogether, and—particularly through his rather grim Stage Manager—kept the focus on the characters' mortality. By underscoring the bleaker aspects of Wilder's vision, he succeeded in getting audiences to look at a classic as if for the first time, unhindered by excess baggage.

Apparently, that same baggage made the Lookingglass ensemble reluctant to take on the play when Thebus and Shapiro initially proposed it. In news stories leading up to the show's opening, cast members stressed that Our Town was precisely the type of piece Lookingglass had vowed never to do. In addition to the perceived corniness of Wilder's subject matter, there was the perceived corniness of his style.

Though innovative when theplay premiered in 1938, Our Town's metatheatrical gestures and minimal props and sets had come to seem old hat five decades later, when a group of recent Northwestern University grads formed Lookingglass. The theater needs new forms, as Treplev says in The Seagull, and Lookingglass obliged with inventive, intensely physical shows that combined sumptuous design, eye-popping stage pictures, and airborne acrobatics, often adapting some seemingly unadaptable epic, myth, fairy tale, or ungainly work of literature—The Arabian Nights, The Jungle, The Odyssey. Placid Grover's Corners seems a universe away from these.

Thebus and Shapiro set out not to give Our Town the Lookingglass treatment, but something very like its opposite. This is the most visually spare Lookingglass show you're ever likely to see. John Musial's scenic design features hundreds of props, pieces of furniture, and costumes from previous productions, hung from the ceiling in a tight bunch as if to offer a ghostly reminder of the company's past. And yet the stage itself is bare. The acting is similarly restrained in terms of physicality—no gymnastics or aerial feats here.

But the point isn't merely to put together a show unlike any the company has done before. By casting many of the company's longtime and founding members, 20 years after its inception, to perform a play about the fleeting nature of life in a close-knit community, the directors seem to be aiming for an elegy to times past. This is different from what Cromer was up to, but a potentially rich approach nonetheless. As the characters progress toward the eternity of the tomb, Thebus and Shapiro invite us to consider where the Lookingglass members fit along their lives' trajectories, now that they've graduated from youth and started staring down middle age. Laura Eason, for example, plays teenager Emily Webb not as a kid but as a fortysomething woman playing a kid, regarding her algebra homework and ice cream soda with a tender, rueful awareness that they won't last. David Schwimmer pairs George's searching teenage confusion with a sad-eyed weariness no adolescent could possibly feel.

Giving the play shadings of middle-aged regret may be an imposition, but it jibes with Wilder's theme of impermanence. The conceit isn't the problem; the problem is that it remains undeveloped. The production actually loses its potentially fruitful elegiac quality as it closes in on death. Though the quotidian first act is lovingly evoked, the heavier second and third acts often seem bloodless and safe.

Part of this has to do with Joey Slotnick's Stage Manager, who makes for an avuncular but shallow guide. Part of it is a matter of the production's pacing, which takes its time with small moments—as when George crumples when scolded by his dad for not helping his mom with the chores—but seems to race unfeelingly through big ones like George and Emily's prewedding panic. And part of it is Eason, whose strategy of keeping her character at arm's length ultimately works against her, causing Emily's post-death epiphany about the wonders of the world to come out seeming forced and unmotivated. Cromer's handling of this scene was both daring and devastating: After an evening of minimalist asperity, Emily's world suddenly took on a painstaking, naturalistic detail, so that we felt the enormity of all that she was leaving behind.

Perhaps because Thebus, Shapiro, and the Lookingglass cast never come close to taking a risk that bold, their serviceable but rather cold production never quite captures the wonderful pain of life in Grover's Corners.v

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