By Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN
When Steve Stettler, Tim Fort and Malcolm Ewen decided to step down after 30 years as artistic directors of Weston Playhouse, they chose Thornton Wilder’s classic “Our Town” as emblematic of their tenure with Vermont’s oldest professional theater company.
“It’s a play that in many ways is about what Weston’s about, which is community, and the way that theater is in some senses the complete and human documentation of our history, so it felt hugely fitting — not to mention the fact that it had an abundant number of parts for company favorites,” explains Stettler, who is directing the production.
“Our Town” was last presented at Weston in 1973, Fort and Stettler’s first year with the company, and the Stage Manager was played by Sam Lloyd Sr., who died last year. In his memory, his brother, film and television star Christopher Lloyd, is taking on the part.
“And the fact that it’s my last directorial role of my last season at Weston also has a lot of significance,” Stettler said recently by phone.
“Our Town” will open Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s 2018 main stage season June 21-July 7 at Weston Playhouse. (Weston’s season actually opened Friday with the Young Company production of “Anne of Green Gables” at the company’s new second theater, Walker Farm at Weston Playhouse.)
Wilder’s 1938 play tells the story of the fictional American small town, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, between 1901 and 1913, through the everyday lives of its citizens. It focuses on the Webb and Gibbs households, the marriage of their children, and the lives and deaths of those who surround them. The play premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, winning the Pulitzer Prize.
“Coincidentally, it was being written an hour down the road at the MacDowell Colony in 1937, which was the first summer of Weston Playhouse’s professional theater,” Stettler said. “There’s another historical tie-in there that’s very meaningful, because it’s the 80th year for the play.”
Unusually, Wilder set the play in the actual theater where it is being performed, with the Stage Manager narrating, interacting and taking on roles. There is virtually no set, only a bare stage, and with a few exceptions, the actors mime actions without the use of props.
“I feel that too often it’s a play that’s in danger of being treated as a sentimental historical piece when, in fact, it is a bold Shakespearean epic in a way,” Stettler said. “Wilder was not ultimately writing about a group of people who lived in a specific town in New Hampshire in the early 20th century as much as he was writing about humanity — and using it as a place to put that larger story.”
Stettler aimed at that universality in his casting choices.
“Because I feel the message of the play is metaphorically macrocosmic and not microcosmic, it was important to me that we had diverse casting,” he said.
Stettler is also taking a theatrical approach to costumes, rather than a historical one.
“We went Wilder one step better than even he prescribes, by making sure that there were literally no hand props, that everything was mimed, that there was no recorded music or sound effects, but they would all be performed live by the ensemble,” Stettler said. “And we use even more doubling than he indicates in the original script — to show that it’s the theatrical storytelling and the audience’s imaginative investment is what theater can do so brilliantly that film and novels don’t and shouldn’t. We’re taking full advantage of that in our production.”
As in most plays, it demands of its actors complete emotional investment in the characters and their story, but that’s not all.
“They have the challenge of looking at their characters in at least three or four different stages of life experience,” Stettler said. “Further, they have to be facile, not just in the physical creation of their character itself, but also all of the physical activities they’ve been involved in and then, because we’ve chosen to have them provide the aural world of the play completely as an ensemble, they have to be able to sing. So it’s a pretty big ticket.”
Stettler sees this as an expression of his thanks to Weston Playhouse’s audiences.
“I just hope they take away from it a love of theater, the play, a love of Weston Playhouse and its family of artists,” he said.
Weston Playhouse Theatre Company presents Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” June 21-July 7 at Weston Playhouse, off Main Street (Route 100) in Weston. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are $49-$60 ($20-$40 for June 21 preview); call 802-824-5288, or go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.