A family at breakfast, women shelling peas, teenagers heading home from school -- it's a simple thing, the famous play leading off what the Public Theater calls its Masterpiece Season. But it earns its deceptively simple title, "Our Town," in many ways.
Most obviously, it takes the comfortable perspective of the inhabitants of Grover's Corners, pop. 2,642. Even as they tell their modest story, led by an avuncular Stage Manager -- part friend, part secular priest, part disarmingly frank theatrical convenience -- they hardly reckon they have a story to tell. It's just their town, ordinary from sunrise to sunset, birth to death and beyond.
But playwright Thornton Wilder aims higher than modest charm. This early 20th-century corner of New Hampshire stands for wherever people cluster to live their unremarkable lives, and not just "our" towns, i.e. American, but anywhere on Earth.
The play makes this claim pretty directly when young Rebecca asks her brother if their moon is also shining on "South America, Canada and half the whole world?" Later, this unlikely young philosopher reports a letter that came to a friend, addressed to her at "The Crofut Farm, Grover's Corners, Sutton County, New Hampshire, U.S.A., North America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God" (just in case it might have gone to some other but atheist universe).
So playwright Wilder has some very big fish to fry in this immodestly modest little giant of a play. Is it justified? Is this simple play as wise as it wants us to believe? Or is its assumption of (hear the word) universality really just egocentricity, assuming that everyone is just like us? That's a pretty big assumption, given the Stage Manager's conservative assumptions about marriage, ethnicity, etc.
And there's the play's disarmingly open theatricality. To honor that, director Ted Pappas further dramatizes the title by producing it with an all-Pittsburgh cast, stretching "local" out (just as the play stretches out) to include actors who had part of their lives here, or perhaps their training, before going on to other towns, such as one named Broadway.
The play is also "ours" because it's become a national treasure. Its spare mode of telling, so unusual when it appeared in 1938, has sunk so deep into our national bloodstream as to verge on a cliche, whether you've actually ever seen it or not.
This familiarity is both trap and opportunity. The opportunity is to make a familiar play fresh in its telling. In this, the Public succeeds not by revealing new angles or a franker darkness, as several high-profile revivals have done recently, but by embracing the play with geniality and simple acceptance.
No story is more easily summarized. It takes place in 1901-13 and before and beyond. Act 1 introduces the town and two families, the Webbs and Gibbses. Act 2 concerns the love and marriage of George Webb and Emily Gibbs. Then as the Stage Manager says of Act 3, "I guess you can reckon what that one's about."
As the Stage Manager, the Public presents Tom Atkins, a Pittsburgh stage icon from one recurring role as Art Rooney (also at the Public) to another as Scrooge (at Pittsburgh CLO). In that Pittsburgh way, he won his spurs elsewhere, so that many people remember him mainly from TV, but his 18 plays over three decades at the Public have shown a commanding range from McMurphy in "Cuckoo's Nest" to James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey."
Here, though, he plays something close to our town's own Tom Atkins, a genial guide. There's little bite, not even in the way the Stage Manager rather brusquely disposes the others on stage, making occasional fun of them, pushing the story along. Although I think this misses a chance to let "Our Town" dig deeper into the darkness of life, it does have the dryness Wilder insisted on, avoiding any tendency toward the overly poetic or lugubrious. For all his supposed universality, this Stage Manager is also from New Hampshire -- or in this case, Pittsburgh -- where poetry and emotion are underplayed.
This reluctance to stress the grit of life is oddly reflected in the set design by, in an unusual departure, director Ted Pappas. We are supposed to see a bare backstage, but rather than give us this thrust theater's unadorned back wall, which doesn't look much like a theater anyway, or create something to look like a traditional backstage, Mr. Pappas drapes the whole rear of the stage in tasteful black cloth.
The simplicity is right: This is as designedly plain a set as you'll ever see in a theater that loves scenic detail. But it just doesn't look as Wilder specifies. What should seem bare is tastefully covered, as though the stage platform were artfully floating in space.
I'm also somewhat confused by Kirk Bookman's lighting, which on occasion lights the audience. Perhaps this is a another way of admitting artifice, but I'm not sure why it happens when it does.
The production's real largess is in the supporting cast of 22 Mr. Pappas moves about the stage with his characteristic attention to detail, but without fussiness, as the play requires.
How to enumerate the highlights in this whole town's worth of characters? Chief among them are the families, the two mothers played with the proper mix of acerbity and sentiment by Cary Anne Spear and Bridget Connors, their husbands played with paternal concern and a comic touch by John Shepard and Marc Epstein.
Patrick Cannon is a pleasing George, although the playwright pretty much limits his range. Erin Lindsey Krom has more to do as Emily, since we follow her story further, and she does it well, although I wasn't as convinced by her final scene as I wanted to be.
But I was moved, overall, by the story of the town and by the human condition shared by its characters and by us, watching. This may not be one of the half-dozen greatest American plays, but it isn't far behind.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM