By Jerome Langston
“This is a big show!” exclaims Chris Hanna, former Artistic Director of the Virginia Stage Company, and current director of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic play, Our Town, which continues VSC’s landmark 40th season following last month’s successful season opener, Always…Patsy Cline. It is very early in our conversation about the show, which is in its second week of rehearsals, when that exclamation occurs. Chris then tells me that he’s directed the play before, but many years ago at Old Dominion University, upon first joining the faculty.
That was a very different time for the noted playwright and director, who is still ODU’s Director of Theatre. His wife Connie was pregnant with their son, and he admits that he didn’t yet feel like a true member of our local, Hampton Roads community. In the decades since, he has of course become settled into his life here, and so Our Town’s take on the importance of community now resonates in a deeper way.
“It was interesting in going back to this play, and looking at it from that perspective,” Chris says. “In 2018, I think it’s an important time to be asking what really defines a community.”
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is easily one of the most revered, and performed dramas of the American stage. It opened on Broadway in 1938 at the Henry Miller’s Theatre and went on to win that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In the years since, film and TV adaptions have followed, as well as multiple award-winning revivals. The play is Wilder’s finest work for the stage, and endures as one of the iconic author’s landmark accomplishments, nestled amongst his many literary and academic achievements.
Our Town is an epic, three-act play, which employs a large cast of characters, navigating a strikingly minimalist set. It is a play within a play, where the small town setting of the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, at the beginning of the 20th century, is largely meant to suggest the core aesthetics of any town. Featuring the Stage Manager who narrates the play, and runs the theatre itself—often addressing the audience and utilizing all kinds of cool, metatheatrical devices, the drama explores the lives of the Gibbs and Webb families, as they navigate the myriad complexities of life itself.
For VSC’s new production of the classic work, Chris has made some interesting choices in terms of casting. The Gibbs family is African-American, which of course makes the play’s core romantic relationship between George Gibbs and Emily Webb, an interracial one. And then there’s the casting of Broadway actress Ellen Harvey in the lead role of The Stage Manager, which historically has been portrayed by a male.
“So much of The Stage Manager’s text and character comes alive in a new way when all of that authority belongs to a woman,” Chris says. “It’s as simple as that.” He later notes that there were actors that were seen for the role, but ultimately the idea to switch the gender was affirmed by those very auditions.
And for the key role of Emily Webb, Chris chose VSC newbie, Missy Dowse, a New York City based actress who had a role on one of my favorite TV shows, NBC’s musical drama about launching a Broadway show, Smash. “You need a mature actress that can still remember and portray what it is to be a teenaged girl,” the director notes. “She really pulls that off.” After my conversation with Chris, Missy explains what it’s like so far to portray Emily.
“It’s been really awesome to be able to explore the show together as a cast, with Chris leading it,” Missy says. “Chris is so collaborative…with everything. He takes such care in the work and with his actors that it’s been such a safe space to create.” Missy, who is actually a New York native, starred in a high school production of Our Town, but didn’t get to play Emily. “I always admired the show and the role and her journey.”
Besides the perhaps unconventional casting, what really looks to distinguish VSC’s production of this American classic is how the Wells Theatre will be transformed for the play. Audience seating will extend to the actual stage, for example, and then there are other changes that Chris would not elaborate on, only saying that they are breathtaking.
“I really have consciously, in a lot of different ways, tried to fuse the line between 1901 New Hampshire and 2018 Hampton Roads,” he says. “When you come into the Wells, you will be shocked.”
The new imagining aside, Our Town is hardly a tough sell for audiences. The play continues to be produced widely and frequently because it clearly connects with many people. I ask Chris why it has endured for so long.
“American audiences love to feel…and think afterwards,” he says. “The play questions everything there is to question―life, death, God, the planet, etc…but only in the context of having opened our emotional drawer.”
“People just love it and embrace it, and there’s a real good reason for that.”
WANT TO GO?
October 17-November 4
Virginia Stage Company
The Wells Theatre