(December 5, 2002)

Newman Makes ‘Our Town’ His Own

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

A-yup, they're blue.

But throughout "Our Town" - a revival of Thornton Wilder's achingly beautiful play that opened last night at the Booth Theatre - Paul Newman keeps his celebrated eyes behind specs.

After all, the Stage Manager, the part Newman plays, is an all-knowing Gepetto, a man who nudges the action along. He has seen it all; no wide-eyed innocent, he. The story moves from 1901 to 1904 to 1913 and back to 1899.

At 77, Paul Newman is making his first return to Broadway since the Johnson administration. (His last turn was as Emil, opposite his wife, Joanne Woodward, in 1964's "Baby Want a Kiss.") And Broadway is lucky to have him back.

"Our Town," which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1938, tells the story of two families - the Gibbses and the Webbs - in fictional Grover's Corners, N.H., at the dawn of the 20th century. Act 1 records daily life; Act 2, love and marriage; and Act 3, as the Stage Manager says: "I reckon you can guess what that's all about."

The principal roles are filled by residents of Westport, Conn., and its environs, and all appeared in the Westport Country Playhouse production last summer that now finds itself in the intimate Booth. In a nod to the commuting fans of the playhouse, producer Woodward, the theater's artistic director, insisted on early Tuesday performances - a 7 p.m. curtain. (This will become the norm on Broadway next month, when most shows add early Tuesday curtains. Check those tickets.)

This is an ensemble show, and while Newman will fill the seats (the entire run through Jan. 26 is sold out), the cast is uniformly strong, breathing life into these simple people.

The parents are Dr. Gibbs (Frank Converse) and Mrs. Gibbs (Jayne Atkinson) and Mr. Webb (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Mrs. Webb (Jane Curtin). They are the backbone of the play and are as full-bodied and believable as the story itself.

The families are joined when Emily Webb (Maggie Lacey) and George Gibbs (Ben Fox) fall in love and marry. When Emily dies in childbirth, she joins the departed in the hilltop cemetery overlooking town. She longs for her lost life and wants to return to walk among the living, if only as a visitor. Those who died before warn against it, but, with the aid of the Stage Manager, she is shown one day in her life, a happy day, her 12th birthday. She soon realizes that the living are too busy living to enjoy the simple pleasures life affords.

"I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed."

Director James Naughton, also of Westport, masters the simple rhythms in Wilder's prose. Wilder tells us life goes by too fast; Naughton takes it all at a deliberate, we'll-get-there-when-we-get-there New Hampshire pace.

Newman spends much of the time peering into the audience, over those spectacles that laze comfortably on the end of his nose. He is charming, relaxed, affable.

Witness the way he drags on the line "Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married."

His timing is spot-on and he appears to be having a great time. For emphasis, he'll jab a bony finger in the air, cock his head and, on occasion, flash those twinkling blues. But Newman's Stage Manager is all New England; there's not a high-falutin' muscle in his body.

Naughton's achievement is considerable, given the constraints Wilder places on him: There are no props and there's precious little scenery. The stage is as spartan as a New Hampshire farmhouse at the turn of the last century. It's as Wilder wanted it. The director does it with just bodies and a few chairs.

Ramond D. Schilke's effects capture the sounds of invisible newspapers hitting porches, and of invisible lawn mowers.

Richard Tilbrow's lighting design relies on a few spotlights on Newman and a remarkable rendering of Mount Monadnock that slowly dissolves into headstones in the final act.

Wilder tells us life is made of simple moments to treasure - and Naughton fills the stage with them.

One indelible moment comes at the end of Act 2, as the town waves farewell to newlyweds Emily and George. Mrs. Soames (Mia Dillon), who loves to see people happy, is beaming; Mrs. Gibbs smiles through tears as her boy becomes a man; Dr. Gibbs stands proud; Editor Webb is a bit teary; Mrs. Webb is all stiff-upper-lip in the center.

Also notable is Stephen Spinella as choir director Simon Stimson, who struggles with the bottle and with small-town life. His cemetery speech is riveting. He clips the words bitterly from his mouth: "That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those … of those about you. … Ignorance and blindness."

As Emily, Lacey positively shines in her Broadway debut. The innocence of early scenes gives way to a recognition that pulls a shade over her sparkling eyes in the graveyard scene. It is a dynamic performance - at turns shiny and excited and then knowing and thoughtful.

Fox's George is as earnest an effort as you'll find. Fox tries as hard as George does, blushing when Emily and Dr. Gibbs point out his shortcomings, or when he's short of cash at the drugstore soda fountain.

Before heading back to her hilltop grave, Emily says goodbye to "clocks ticking … and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

If you are fortunate enough to hold tickets to "Our Town," you will realize the simple pleasure of a great story well told.

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