Tonight is opening night of the New Haven Theater Company production of Our Town. Any presentation of this show, one of the most often produced plays in the history of the American theater, comes with the annotation that the playwright was a longtime New Haven/Hamden resident. This year, there’s the added hype of it being the 75th anniversary of Our Town’s Broadway premiere.
So, there’s special community interest in this most community-driven of dramas. Director Steve Scarpa, who’s acted frequently and directed occasionally for NHTC, says he proposed this project to the group not just because of its strong local flavor but because “there are so many good people” in the company right now that he knew casting such a large show wouldn’t be a problem.
This doesn’t mean he didn’t keep an open mind, and take a few risks. The Stage Manager, for instance—played over the years by everyone from Frank Craven to Hal Holbrook to Spalding Gray to Paul Newman to Thornton Wilder himself, has been cast with a female actor, Megan Chenot (who played opposite Scarpa in NHTC’s production of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow last year). This is not unheard of—Geraldine Page has stage managed in the show, as has Helen Hunt—but it is uncommon. “I had only ever seen it with a male Stage Manager,” Scarpa confesses. One of the cast members in this show, George Kulp, played the Stage Manager in a previous production of Our Town which Scarpa directed, yet this time Kulp is playing the newspaper editor, with Kulp’s wife Susan playing his wife onstage. Which leads to a separate, intriguing batch of casting choices—there are three real-life married couples in the show.
As for the characters, Scarpa says there are plenty of well-thought-through interpretations. The director sought reality and truthfulness, and was pleased to find that “every character in this play, even the tiny little supporting characters, has a story.” He encouraged the actors to bring out those stories, and also not to play into social or theatrical stereotypes. The choirmaster character Simon Stimson, often staged as comic relief, is being done by local actor Jim Lones with a measure of gravity. “Jim was in the Paul Newman Our Town as a dead person in the third act,” Scarpa says. “We talked a lot about his character here. He and I both see him as a tragedy.”
While serving its many loyal company members with rewarding roles and the sort of ensemble endeavor they crave, Our Town is also a departure for the current regime of New Haven Theatre Company. The company began in the ‘90s doing Shakespeare and contemporary classics (Look Back in Anger) in the dance room at BAR, then shifted under a different group of performers and directors into improv comedy, new works and more contemporary dramas. The current organization has chosen a lot of gritty shows—two Mamets; Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio; the musical Urinetown—amid lighter yet still sassy stuff such as Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Our Town is among the most “traditional” things they’ve attempted, and nearly the oldest. (The company did Odets’ Waiting for Lefty a few years ago; that union-happy sketch-play is three years older than Our Town.)
It’s only sensible, given the change in tone and era, that NHTC has once again found itself a new venue to stage the show in. Our Town is being performed in the back of the English Market antiques boutique on Chapel Street. “It makes a wonderful theater space,” Scarpa says, and “we’ve found a great way of carving up that space” with the set design: large, almost pillar-like structures meant to evoke both “musical notes” and the ancient civilizations Wilder alludes in his play about modern living (and dying). Scarpa also promises “no New Hampshire accents” and no period costumes. “Like it says in the script, it’s a neutral time and place—it could be anywhere.”
“It’s an effort to create something beautiful,” the director sums up. “Yet it can also be harsh. It’s a play about death.”
For Steve Scarpa, he also feels it strongly as a play about generations, and aging, and changing times. “I love this play. I’ve always loved this play,. I react differently to it at different times. The last time I directed it, my sister was getting married. This time, she’s recently had a child, my niece. And this play is really good for our guys. They’re really going for it. Being truthful.”
The New Haven Theater Company production of Our Town plays Sept. 19-21 and 26-28 at 8 p.m. in the back room of the first floor of the English Market Building, 839 Chapel Street, New Haven. $20. $12 students. www.newhaventheatercompany.com