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How Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has revived Thornton Wilder’s ‘dark and profound’ US classic Our Town

Francesca Henry, who will play Emily Webb in the Regent’s Park revival. Photo: Feast Creative Francesca Henry, who will play Emily Webb in the Regent’s Park revival. Photo: Feast Creative
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One of the most performed plays in the US, Our Town is regarded as Thornton Wilder’s finest work. Director Ellen McDougall tells Nick Smurthwaite about reviving the show for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Like many groundbreaking plays, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was met with a mixed reception when it debuted in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1938.

A review in Variety described it as “the seasons’s most extravagant waste of fine talent”, while another said it was “earthbound by its folksy attention to humdrum detail”. However, the critic who mattered most, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, declared it “one of the finest achievements of the current stage”.

Its Broadway run broke house records at the Henry Miller Theatre and it went on to win that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Though rarely produced in the UK, Our Town is by far the most frequently revived play in the US. Its paean to ordinary Americans, set in a small, sleepy New Hampshire town, has been subject to myriad interpretations.

“I was told that since it opened in 1938 there hasn’t been a single day when someone somewhere in America hasn’t performed it,” says director Ellen McDougall, whose revival opens at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre next week. “It is done in prisons, schools and community centres, as well as regular theatres. It really is owned by the people.”

What was it about the play that appealed to McDougall, artistic director of the Gate Theatre since 2017? “I’d wanted to direct Our Town ever since I saw David Cromer’s 2009 production at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York,” she says.

“Before writing the play in the late 1930s Wilder spent a lot of time in Europe, witnessing the rise of fascism. In spite of this, he felt there was something worth celebrating about the human race. I found its humanity and defiance incredibly moving.”

Thornton Wilder in 1920
Thornton Wilder in 1920

An academic and novelist before he became better known as a playwright, Thornton Wilder regarded Our Town as his finest achievement, both in literary and theatrical terms. It was many years in the making, since he not only wanted it to question the philosophical mysteries of existence, but also to reflect his feelings about what contemporary theatre should be about.

In his stage directions, Wilder stipulated that the stage should be unadorned, that is to say no curtain, no scenery and minimal props. He wrote: “It should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness – simply, dryly and sincerely.” McDougall has stuck scrupulously to his wishes. “It seemed to me that he imagined it as a whole production,” she says. “Its themes are rooted in its form. As the director, you feel very much as if you are working in association with Thornton Wilder.”

Wilder was not a fan of lavish Broadway productions and spectacular stage effects, believing they took away from the effect of the written word. He wrote: “I felt something had gone wrong. I began to feel the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive. Finally, my dissatisfaction passed into resentment.”

His radical answer was to eliminate the pyrotechnics, to abandon the convention of a linear narrative and to break down the fourth wall. The narrator figure in Our Town – the so-called Stage Manager – speaks directly to the audience and openly acknowledges the artificiality of their relationship. Critic Mark Shenton, reviewing the 2017 revival at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, described the play as “ahead of its time and formally audacious in the way it repeatedly references its own theatricality”. In doing so, he wrote: “It carries us right into the heart of the community it is depicting.”

Edward Albee, one of America’s most brutally honest playwrights, loved Our Town but abhorred the fact that so many revivals sentimentalised it. He wrote: “Everyone performs it as if it were a Christmas card.”

It seems unlikely that McDougall’s version will invite such accusations. She says: “For all its joy and beauty, Our Town is incredibly dark, powerful and profound.”

What does she hope to gain by producing Our Town in the open air? “In his introduction to the play, Wilder talks about ‘the life of the town mapped out against the life of the stars’, meaning that while it looks at one specific community, the play speaks to millions of others. So to be outside, literally under the stars, feels perfect for it. With the fading of the light, I’m hoping there will be a supernatural element to Act III, which takes place in a graveyard.”

She continues: “Wilder always imagined the play as a dialogue between the audience and what’s happening on stage. Though Regent’s Park is a sizeable auditorium, it can also feel intimate, and so it suits the idea of the action being both on stage and in the audience.”

Our Town’s enduring success in the US and overseas transformed its author from a respected writer into a celebrity. Compounded by the equally ambitious and unconventional 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder’s reputation as one of America’s greatest dramatists – on a par with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller – was assured.

Our Town opens at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre on May 16. For more information go to: openairtheatre.com

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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