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DVD SAVANT

Our Town


Our Town
PBS/Paramount
2003 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 120 min. / Street Date February 22, 2004 / 19.99
Starring Paul Newman, Maggie Lacey, Ben Fox, Frank Converse, Jayne Atkinson, Jeffrey DeMunn, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella
Cinematography Phil Abraham
Production Designer Tony Walton
Film Editor Camilla Toniolo
Original Music John Oddo
Written by Thornton Wilder
Produced by Marc Bauman, Rebecca Eaton, Frank Garritano, Joanne Woodward
Directed by James Naughton

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

From high school on, I've yet to see a production of Our Town I didn't like. This 2003 effort gets high marks in every category. Thornton Wilder's drama isn't diminished for being performed on an almost bare stage - after an initial feeling of surprise (what, no sets?) we realize we're entering the spirit of the play more thoroughly than if there were a lot of scenery to admire. With Paul Newman as the Stage Manager one might think the casting a bit lopsided, but the producers have found as perfect a couple of newcomers as can be imagined to play Emily Webb and George Gibbs.

Synopsis:

The Stage Manager (Paul Newman) shows us glimpses of several days in the life of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire in 1900, 1903 and about nine years after that. The Webb and Gibbs families live next to each other and their children Emily (Maggie Lacey) and George (Ben Fox) are childhood sweethearts who eventually decide to marry. The Stage Manager examines everyday life from several points of view, all of which prepares us for a harsh lesson: The living seem barely aware of the miracle of their lives, and even less aware of how fleeting a lifetime can be.

The play Our Town works its magic over and over again. It is folksy, funny and universally understood even by cultures far afield from a little New Hampshire town with its one milkman and one sheriff. For the majority of Americans raised in something resembing conventional families, the image of the Webb and Gibbs households is almost painfully nostalgic - who doesn't yearn to see their parents at an early age again, or wish they could go back and appreciate what was good about their lives and loved ones?

Our Town has several unexpected narrative shocks that hit us like catastrophic events in our own lives. Thornton Wilder's fantasy excursion outside of reality is more than an opportunity to editorialize on the foibles of the characters. It reveals the truth of our solitary existences, while making our complacent acceptance of life seem like a curious flaw of the species. The Stage Manager talks of religion as if it is relatively unimportant, but we see a gallery of Grover's Corners dead in their graves patiently waiting for what might be the rapture. Among them is a suicide, a man who doesn't seem to be suffering for the sin of throwing away his life. It's a very curious story.

The biggest television version before this was a 1977 show with Hal Holbrook, Barbara Bel Geddes, Ronny Cox, Ned Beatty and a young discovery of the time, Robby Benson. I remember it having an elaborate set. 1

This production takes place on a practically empty stage, which only serves to concentrate our attention on the excellent performances. Newman's Stage Manager is less folksy than Hal Holbrook and more intent on driving his lesson home to the audience. Jane Curtin is sweet as Emily Webb's mother Myrtle and Jeffrey DeMunn amusingly scattered as her father, the newspaper editor. Jayne Atkinson makes a tender Julia Gibbs, and Frank Converse is less colorful but solid as her husband, the town doctor.

The production notes tell us that the show's ingenue roles were found through open auditions. Ben Fox is a fine choice for George Gibbs, and convincing as a high school athlete. He's a kid with a set ambition - to work his Uncle's farm - and an honest humility. When his father gently lets George know his mother is chopping wood because he's neglecting his chores, he's shamed to tears.

Maggie Lacey has the crucial role of Emily Webb, who must appear to be in her early 20s, twelve years old and also a disembodied spirit. She has the notion that her father is perfect and is well aware of her own conceit and vanity. For me Emily Webb is the center of the show and Maggie Lacey is a delight. I think she's the best Emily so far, for getting an interesting spin off lines like, "Isn't the moonlight terrible?"

Our Town is one of those productions that begs to be constantly restaged or refilmed. It's easy to see films as far apart as It's A Wonderful Life and Peggy Sue Got Married as being spiritual extensions of Thornton Wilder's play. I still wish that an intact element could be located for the 1940 Our Town, as its design and special effects would be great to see as they were when new. Even if the film's public domain status could be straightened out, it was severely compromised by an imposed happy ending.


This PBS television version of Our Town doesn't need the fancy special effects or even scenery, you won't miss them, honest. The enhanced picture may have been originally recorded in HD and the audio is flawless. There are no extras save for text excerpts of a production interview with director James Naughton, producer Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. Woodward says that the production was prompted by 9/11, to acknowlege the need for reflection in tense times. The three interviewees also note that Our Town's long life may be due to how easily it can be performed by school kids. That's certainly true - how many of us remember some of our high school classmates from their roles in the play?


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Our Town rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: production notes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 6, 2005


Footnote:

1. From "B", a frequent correspondent and contributor: Dear Glenn: I well recall the NBC production of Our Town, an earnest attempt by George Schaefer and the network to re-create something of the olden age of tv drama. It wasn't bad - temptation is strong to suggest that it was somewhat over-produced - and Holbrook was okay as the Stage Manager. Yes, Robby Benson played George Gibbs, but he wasn't a "discovery" by then; after Jeremy (1973), tv's Death Be Not Proud, Lucky Lady (1975), and Ode to Billy Joe, a surprise hit for WB in the summer of '76, Benson was a bona-fide star. (Less than two months after the Our Town broadcast, Benson starred in another hit for Warners, One On One, which he co-wrote.) The key performance in Schaefer's tv staging of Our Town, though, was Glynnis O'Connor's luminous performance as Emily; she was perfect (it's the best part in the play, really). The casting of Benson and O'Connor in this production gave it some interesting resonance. This was their third on-screen pairing, and there's much tender naturalism in their performances here; the actorswere clearly comfortable with each other.

That said, the, uh, biggest tv production of Our Town is still NBC's lavish 1955 "Producers' Showcase" presentation of the play. Delbert Mann directed this elaborate live broadcast, a musicalization of the Wilder play. [This played better than it may now sound.] David Shaw wrote the adaptation; Sammy Cahn & James Van Heusen penned seven or eight songs, one of which, Love and Marriage, became a standard. Frank Sinatra, a frequent interpreter of the work of the songwriters, played the Stage Manager. Eva Marie Saint played Emily (she was nominated for an Emmy), Ernest Truex played Dr. Gibbs, Sylvia Field played Mrs. Gibbs, Paul Hartman played Mr. Webb. Paul Newman played George Gibbs. Best, Always. -- B.

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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