It takes a village to bring Our Town to life on stage. Especially during an ongoing global pandemic.
“It’s been one of the craziest things, putting on this show in the time of COVID,” says Alan Paul, associate artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, who directed the organization’s current production of the Thornton Wilder classic.
Initially scheduled to run the first two months of 2022, the show was postponed until May in an effort to steer clear of this winter’s first wave of COVID’s omicron variant. “And then when we were getting ready to open the show, a bunch of people in the cast got COVID. Eventually, it just became clear that we were going to have to open the show with understudies. So we opened the show with six understudies. That’s one of the wildest things I’ve ever done.”
Fortunately, they’ve managed to pull it off with aplomb, thanks to some choice heavy hitters Paul enlisted for understudy duty, and the extraordinary all-star ensemble cast he put together overall. “It’s a revolving door of the best actors in D.C,” he says. “I say revolving door because you don’t see all of them [during any one performance].”
Take, for example, Erin Weaver. The five-time Helen Hayes Award-winning actress is typically cast as a main supporting character, if not the leading lady, in high-profile productions at major theaters around town. With Our Town, she serves as one of the production’s relief players, waiting in the wings as a standby for the role of Professor Willard.
“It would be unusual to have Erin Weaver as an understudy,” Paul says. “And here she is, ruling the roost of the first 30 minutes of this play, getting all these laughs.
“We brought her on as an understudy in the middle of the technical rehearsals just to have extra safety if anyone got sick,” he continues. “And she’s performed the show for over a week now.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Our Town focuses on the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners in turn-of-the-20th-century New Hampshire, depicted at three different points in time over the span of a dozen years.
“It’s got a really interesting idea about putting life and death and everything in perspective,” says Paul, noting that in Wilder’s Our Town, “life and death are not personal, they just happen. The little things in life are actually the big things — that’s what he’s trying to capture.”
As for the set, Our Town is a play that famously doesn’t have one, as put forth in Wilder’s stage instructions, which dictate that only a few chairs, tables, and ladders are permitted. “It’s a big challenge to do that kind of play in a space as big as the Harman,” says Paul.
Even more challenging, or at least unprecedented, is staging a show in the round in Shakespeare’s Harman Hall, yet that’s what Paul set out to do. “I just thought, ‘Well, it’s a communal experience. Let’s stage it in the round,’ [to] make it more of an event. And I wanted the audience to be able to see each other over the stage.”
Because the stage in the Harman is “football-field-sized,” Paul says, “we have the ability to do shows in-the-round in this theater, though we’ve never done it before. There are a lot of possibilities in the way they built this theater that we haven’t always fully explored.”
For Our Town, Paul worked with scenic designer Wilson Chin “to create a really basic platform with a gabled roof that can look like a town hall or a church — a slice of Americana. And we just wanted it to be as theatrical as possible.” The stage is pushed forward to accommodate multiple rows of seats on three sides, with the majority of the audience over the metaphorical fourth wall in Harman’s regular tiered seating sections. The actors come and go from nearly every corner, and the lead character, the Stage Manager, even occasionally sits among the crowd.
Holly Twyford, another multiple Hayes Award-winning actress and director, gives an exceptional performance as the wry, dispassionate, all-knowing overseer in Shakespeare’s production. “Holly has been like the ringleader with me,” Paul says. “She’s the first person that I called when I decided to do the play. I had her sit in on all the auditions because I [wanted to] get her input on everything. She’s been a part of a lot of the major decisions of the production.”
Paul does have another ace in his pocket to play the Stage Manager if need be. “Luckily, Kim Schraf is her understudy and is fully rehearsed and ready to go on,” he says. “It’s an interesting exercise, seeing all of these different people inhabit these parts a little bit differently. You can see that the play can hold a lot of interpretation.”
Schraf, like many others in the cast, is decidedly well-versed in the show overall, having played a part in many other productions over her decades-long career. “She’s played every single role in the show,” Paul says, noting in particular that roughly a decade ago at Ford’s Theatre, she played the role of Mrs. Webb opposite Craig Wallace, who reprises the role of Mr. Webb in this production. “There are all these Our Town experts in the cast. Sarah Marshall, who plays Mrs. Soames, teaches the play in her classes at Georgetown University.
“When you do this play with people who just know it inside and out,” Paul concludes, “everything that you can do with it is a total pleasure.”
Our Town runs through June 11 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW.
Tickets are $35 to $120.
Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.
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