Translated into 80 languages, Thornton Wilder’s quintessentially American play Our Town has been performed around the world almost from the time it was first produced on Broadway in 1938. So what’s the big deal about a recent version featuring the Gibbs family as Creole-speaking Haitian-Americans and the Webbs as Latinos?
“There’s a lot of fear around doing anything that’s not English-centric,” says Tatiana Pandiani, who’s directing the multilingual adaptation at Dallas Theater Center, co-titled Nuestro Pueblo, the first production since its 2017 premiere in Miami. “It’s a pity, because there are under-explored audiences in lots of places in the country. Texas is definitely one of them.”
In the Dallas production, as in Miami, Emily Webb and her parents and younger brother speak Spanish at home. A couple of moments of them conversing in their native language while in town also have been added at the Theater Center, Pandiani says.
A second set of actors will perform the roles in Spanish on Feb. 4-6, with the audio available to audience members who choose to listen on headsets.
Because Dallas doesn’t have a large Haitian population like Miami, the Gibbses are portrayed as English-speaking African-Americans.
The performers may be masked as an extra precaution against COVID-19. Some members of the cast and crew contracted the coronavirus during the rehearsal period, according to Dallas Theater Center managing director Jeff Woodward, but all of them have since recovered. The audience will be required to be vaccinated or have a recent negative test and must remain masked throughout the show.
The playwright’s nephew and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, says he was ready when the founders of the troupe Miami New Drama, Michel Hausmann and Moises Kaufman, approached him about their desire to produce a version partially translated into Spanish and Creole.
He was aware of the play’s international history, including the fact that his constantly traveling uncle partially wrote Our Town in Switzerland. “It fell on seeded ground,” Wilder says. “I didn’t have to be wrestled to the ground.”
The translation work, now published in a new acting edition, was done by a pair of Miami-based playwrights, the Cuban-born Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics) and Jeff Augustin (Where the Mountain Meets the Sea), whose mother emigrated from Haiti.
Pandiani was associate director of the production at Miami New Drama, where she is in charge of developing new works aimed at the local audience. Last year, she co-adapted and directed a bilingual production of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding at the Yale School of Drama.
“I’ve been working on a lot of multilingual and bilingual productions,” she says. “They open up something for everybody, regardless of what languages they speak. A lot of monolingual speakers have wonderful experiences at bilingual productions. … I’m trying to figure out how these plays that become part of the American canon, what makes them uniquely American.”
Our Town, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, certainly qualifies. Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) called it “the greatest American play ever written.” It has been produced on Broadway four times, with the Stage Manager portrayed by the likes of Paul Newman and Henry Fonda. In Dallas, the character is portrayed by Theater Center veteran Liz Mikel, not the first woman to play the part.
Because of the sheer number of high school productions and the lazy misinterpretation of its style and meaning, Our Town developed the reputation of being sentimental. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Divided into three acts, “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Eternity,” the timeless classic is written in a plainspoken language that’s antithetical to more typically poetic stage works, Pandiani says, calling it “an experimental play.” In most productions, there is little or no set, with the actors pantomiming instead of using props.
Its meta approach, with the Stage Manager acknowledging that we’re in a theater watching a play, was far ahead of its time.
“I’m really into working on plays that became so lacquered with production history, very successful plays that have lots of productions and we come to think of them with a particular idea,” Pandiani says. “Our Town sometimes has that wholesome, small-town chestnut feel. But then we can remove some of those layers of lacquer and realize, ‘Hey, actually that’s not what’s in the text.’
“It’s a play about living and dying. It’s a play that’s actually quite dark and profound and not very feel-good at all.”
The times have caught up to Our Town, Tappan Wilder says, comparing its evolution to the martini, “which was quite sweet in the beginning — one-third vermouth. And it’s just gotten drier and drier and drier. It’s gotten to be the play that Thornton Wilder wrote.”
The plot, such as it is, involves the budding romance between neighbors Emily Webb and George Gibbs once everyday life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is established. When Emily — spoiler alert! — dies in childbirth, she joins the previously departed at the graveyard in one of the greatest movingly low-key scenes in American theater history.
“The dead are so matter-of-fact,” says Tappan Wilder. “There’s no mournful remorse.”
He told an interviewer that Our Town is “good in raw times,” referring to our current culture.
“It’s a play which speaks to almost everybody at different points in their life. At my age, with the scars on my heart, I look at it differently than I did when I had to perform it in high school back in the ‘50s. It has hard edges, which have to do with death, dying and whether any of this thing amounts to anything, what all this adds up to. How do we find meaning against the abyss that we all face? Certainly that’s in the play. And the times in which we live are such that it makes those questions more obvious, right? It’s raw everywhere.”
Our Town | Nuestro Pueblo runs Jan. 27 through Feb. 20 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas. $15 to $75. For tickets or more information, visit dallastheatercenter.org.
Credit: Source link