Schwimmer the emotional core of 'Our Town' in search of a small town
Company members mentioned in this article: Joey Slotnick, David Schwimmer, John Musial, David Catlin, Laura Eason, Thomas J Cox, Raymond Fox, Christine Mary Dunford, Heidi Stillman, David Kersnar and Tracy Walsh
by Chris Jones
You may not have gone to school with David Schwimmer. But watching the intensely resonant Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Thornton Wilderâ€™s â€śOur Townâ€ť still feels a lot like youâ€™re a voyeuristic spy at a 20-year reunion at a classy college.
Middle-age graduates must now confront stark differences in wealth, success, talent, acquired skills and the level of personal happiness achieved. But what they most crave is the return of their youth, when promise was uniform, everything was still possible and everyone was still together.
Not that they appreciated it when they had it. Not that you appreciated it when you had it, either.
Wilderâ€™s iconic American playâ€”his brilliant, prescient, direct, gorgeous, endlessly viewable American playâ€”pretty much boils down to the message that our available time with those we love is perilously, agonizingly short, and the collective failing of the American species is an inability to prioritize our lives with this mortality in mind. Regardless of economic conditions.
So, the decision of the Lookingglass ensemble to use â€śOur Townâ€ť as a metaphor for their collective artistic journey from collegiate beginnings together at Northwestern University to their complicated current existence works very nicely and is executed with modesty, felicity to the text, and quiet simplicity by a theater company that has always contained a great deal of craft and heart within its intellectually formidable confines.
With the help of their skilled co-directors, Anna D. Shapiro and Jessica Thebus, these mostly 40-ish Lookingglass actors successfully persuade the audience to forget that they are watching a play about generational interplay and change, performed by actors of the same generation. There are some hung punches, significant problems unsolved and risks untaken. But the work here is consistently honest, occasionally wondrous, frequently successful and (albeit only really in the second act) quite moving.
Most especially, Schwimmer, who obviously has a particularly tough challenge vanishing into his ensemble of old, turns in a poignant, richly textured and demonstrably heartfelt performance as George Gibbs. Iâ€™ve seen a fair bit of Schwimmerâ€™s post-â€śFriendsâ€ť stage work in London and New York and Iâ€™ve never seen him better.
With the help of Laura Easonâ€”a counter-intuitive, complicated Emily that remains at least half Eason and yet mostly captures the metadramatic implications of the productionâ€”Schwimmer emotionally fires up the playâ€™s scenes of affection, yearning and confusion. It is a guileless, authentic performance. In another simple little scene between George and his father (beautifully played by David Caitlin), a father makes his son see that he is not taking care of his mother. George says almost nothing, but youâ€™d think Schwimmerâ€™s world had suddenly come to an end. It riveted the opening-night audience and was a timely reminder of Schwimmerâ€™s stellar stage chops, when in the right surroundings.
There was, of course, another â€śOur Townâ€ť here just last year by The Hypocritesâ€”David Cromerâ€™s brilliantly cynical version transfers off-Broadway next week. Each is the doppelganger of the other.
Cromerâ€™s was an outsiderâ€™s cold-eyed deconstruction, crushing the showâ€™s sentimentality and exposing its raw existential nerve. Conversely, the Lookingglass artists reconstruct the play, leaning hungrily into â€śOur Town,â€ť as if they all craved its small-town simplicity and its youthful characters, and as if they had all spent many sleepless nights worrying that they were being too urbane and condescending. (They need not have worried; they were not and that insecurity only helps their show).
Cromer was saying that community never saved anybody from the grave; the Lookingglass show is all about the longing for community. The play supports both sets of ideas with ease.
Still, Shapiro and Thebus donâ€™t quite know what to do with the third, end-of-life act. And although Joey Slotnick is surely the most genial of narrators, he leaves one wholly in the dark as to any layered point of view, and Emilyâ€™s painful return to life entirely up to the actors. Thatâ€™s a smart choice, but in execution it doesnâ€™t pack the kind of emotional punch it should, although Eason has moments where she almost nails everything all by herself. And the final George-and-Emily moment has Schwimmer face down on the floor, which is deeply unsatisfying.
But if the third act of â€śOur Townâ€ť feels reticent and uncertain, as does as the weird, slight switch into contemporary costuming, the second act, the story of love and marriage and the core of this production, is fully and beautifully conveyed, with such fine self-effacing actors as Thomas J. Cox, Raymond Fox, Heidi Stillman and Andrew White adding dignity and substance to the trickier bends of lifeâ€™s road. And as Simon Simson, the anguished choirmaster with a peck of troubles yet no wife, the fine David Kersnar says very little and, simultaneously, very much.
Regardless of your experience with the play or with Lookingglass, this production will, I think, touch you most of all by its liveness, its immediacy and its palpable intimacy. One wishes the play-within-a-play went just a notch or two further, even as one understands why that must have felt so dangerous. And one wishes the raw nerves of the piece had fuller exposure. But overall, you have the sense here that the Lookingglass artists wanted to open themselves up on this stage, even as they struggled to overcome all the myriad stuff in their way (tellingly, in John Musialâ€™s set, all the stuff is up on the ceiling, peering down like ghostly properties).
Some are better at honest revelation than others. But most find their peaks among the valleys.
Just as in Groverâ€™s Corners.Â