Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, marks the opening of the mainstage season for University of Pittsburgh Stages in the newly renovated Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.
Our Town is a deceptively easy play to produce, famously requiring a minimal set and easily understood dialogue. But don’t let the surface simplicity fool you; this is a production that to be fully realized requires nuanced acting, a firm control of pacing, and obsessive attention to detail.
The problem starts with the director’s note, which focused on the casting choices for the show, explaining casting was not based on “physical appearance,” but instead on “who seemed to inhabit the character in an interesting and/or compelling way.” The director’s note went on to explain how the casting affected the interpretation of character and dialogue. All well and good, but the result of this self-conscious emphasis on the casting was to draw focus away from the play itself and onto the actors, not the story. In practice, director Ricardo Vila-Roger seems to have attempted to create a production that allowed for racial diversity and gender equity. Commendable goals, and I applaud the attempt, but he “over-corrected” sometimes from my perspective.
He was most successful at building an ethnically diverse acting company, who worked well as an ensemble, giving committed, balanced performances. In fact, I think this production was more successful at providing a racially diverse cast than most of the productions I’ve seen in Pittsburgh in recent years. Kudos for that! What I didn’t like was the inauthentic use of Spanish for some of the Webbs’ dialogue. To my admittedly limited ears, it didn’t sound like any of the actors were actually native Spanish speakers; the accents were off, and so the addition of Spanish in the play didn’t seem organic. I didn’t mind the idea, but the execution was clumsy, which took away from the performances in the end.
Mr. Vila-Roger was less successful in his decisions around gender in the casting. He did not cast traditionally with the gender of the actor matching the gender of the character in all cases. Nor did he use gender-neutral casting to fill the roles, where actors don’t necessarily play characters that match their own gender. Instead, he cast several females as male characters, and then changed all of those characters to females. (Side note: he did not cast any males as female characters.) For me, this just didn’t work. It created too many anachronistic moments that simply did not mesh with the period dialogue of the play. This was especially egregious in the case of “Editor Webb” — Mr. Webb in the original script. The decision was made to play “Editor Webb” as a female character, leaving us in the audience to reconcile the idea that an openly lesbian couple would be married and have children in 1901 small town New Hampshire. While it’s a nice thought, it stretches the bounds of verisimilitude past the breaking point. It takes you out of the play too much. Not to mention that Editor Webb’s dialogue, particularly that between him/herself and George before and during the wedding simply didn’t work with a female Editor Webb. The dialogue, written in the 1930’s about the early 1900’s, wasn’t built for that kind of a stretch.
Let me be clear, I have no problem with actors of any gender playing characters of any gender. There is a long history of this practice, and it works quite well. But this changing of the character’s gender to match the actor’s gender seems almost regressive, as though women can’t play male roles. And, ultimately it takes the audience out of the world of the play.
In the end, by focusing the audience so much on his casting, by trying to be everything to everybody, and by trying to make an early twentieth century play fit the model of a twenty-first-century ideal, the director created a tortuous framework that distracted the audience from the simple meditation on ordinary life and death that is Our Town.
Despite all of these concerns, I commend Mr. Vila-Roger on this production, because it does what good university theater should do – it experiments with the form; it reimagines traditions; it allows a space for both professional and casual theater practitioners to expand the limits of their work.
This production of Our Town was a pleasant, university level production with good production values. I especially liked the directorial/design choice made at the end of the play when Emily’s ghost returns to her past to visit her family, and we see the colors and details of the world that Emily missed in life (you’ll have to see it to understand what I mean). The show was moving, bringing several audience members to tears in the third act. And best of all, the actors were emotionally brave and committed to their performances.
Our Town is playing at The Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus, through October 15, 2017. For tickets, call 412-624-7529 or visit www.play.pitt.edu