Williamstown, Westport, the world...
Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed
was a platform and a passion or two.
The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding
and the passion to know what life means to us."
-- Thornton Wilder, Preface to Three Plays by Thornton Wilder
Performances of note
The very first staging of Our Town occurred on January 22, 1938 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. It was a one-time performance before the show moved to New York for its "official" opening the following month. Jed Harris produced and directed actor Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, Martha Scott as Emily Webb and John Craven as George Gibbs.
Craven and Scott would reprise their roles in the 1940 screen adaptation, directed by Sam Wood, but John Craven (Frank's son) was replaced by William Holden as George.
David Hays (founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf) described in Harvard Magazine (in 1976) what he felt when he saw a Gallaudet College (for the deaf) production of Our Town in 1963. "Jose Quintero and I had just completed a production of it at the Circle in the Square (in New York), but I thought theirs was more moving. There was something in the way the deaf actors expressed themselves that profoundly stirred me. Somehow they were able to clarify the play's meaning and its reach into the universal soul."
A 1969 Broadway revival starred Henry Fonda as the Stage Manager, as well as Ed Begley, Margaret Hamilton, Mildred Natwick and John Randolph.
A 1977 TV version of Our Town gathered 8 Emmy nominations. The NBC production featured Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager, Ned Beatty and Sada Thompson as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, Ronny Cox and Barbara Bel Geddes as Mr. and Mrs. Webb and Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor as George and Emily. John Houseman, the actor who would intimidate Harvard Law students as Professor Kingfield in The Paper Chase (1978), played Professor Willard. Charlotte Rae (best known as Mrs. Garrett in the '80s sitcom The Facts of Life) was Mrs. Soames.
The 1989 Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Gregory Mosher, won that year's Tony Award for Best Revival. It was also filmed for television; it featured Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager, Penelope Ann Miller as Emily, Eric Stoltz as George, Frances Conroy as Mrs. Gibbs, James Rebhorn as Dr. Gibbs, Roberta Maxwell as Mrs. Webb and Peter Maloney as Mr. Webb. William H. Macy, who played Howie Newsome on stage, was replaced by John Griesemer in the televised version.
Williamstown and Westport
The Williamstown (MA) Theatre Festival, founded in 1955, and the Westport (CN) Country Playhouse, which presented its first production in 1931, are typical of the majority of regional theaters in the United States in that, at some point in time, Our Town has been a featured play.
What is perhaps less conventional is the fact that Thornton Wilder himself appeared in productions at both theaters.
Wilder first played the role of the Stage Manager when he filled in for actor Frank Craven for two weeks in September 1938 during the play's premiere run. The following year he performed the role in summer theaters on Cape Cod and in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He played the role again in a 1946 production of Our Town in Westport, earning his Actor's Equity card. And he reprised the role in 1955 in Williamstown.
The Westport Country Playhouse was founded in 1931 by Laurence Langner and Armina Marshall, theater producers who divided their stage time between Westport and Broadway. Over the years, its players have included Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy Gish, Henry Fonda, Paul Robeson and Jessica Tandy.
The WCP Web site notes: "... Another newcomer to the stage was, in fact, already a theatre legend as a playwright. Thornton Wilder applied for and received his Actors' Equity Association membership card in order to portray the Stage Manager in his own hit play, Our Town, at the Playhouse in 1946."
The Paul Newman headlined version was the premiere of the Playhouse's 72nd summer season (2002). Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, is the artistic director of the WCP. She explained that almost everyone in the (Westport) cast "is from around here, which is by design because it's Our Town and we wanted it to be our town."
When the Playhouse's Our Town considered moving to Broadway, finding a theater that echoed the cozy ambience of Westport's 700-seat venue was a priority. The Booth Theatre (on West 45th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues) fit the bill. Completed in 1913 and named in honor of famed 19th-century American actor Edwin Booth, the theater seats 783 people in an intimate setting.
Over the years, the play has been interpreted many ways. "The Stage Manager can be anyone, it can be a woman. In one production in New York [staged by Transport Group; see OT: our town for more information], it was a teenager," said Woodward, who confessed "It's lovely to see Paul on the stage again."
Joanne Woodward has compared the Westport Country Playhouse's early days to today's Williamstown Festival. "I love Williamstown. It's like going away to camp," she said. "It creates a different atmosphere, a sense of camaraderie, living together and being together."
Geraldine Fitzgerald was the first woman to play the Stage Manager, in 1971 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. "There's no reason why women shouldn't play characters that have an overview," she reportedly said. "Why are men the only supposed philosophers?"
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