The shadows seem to be creeping into Grover's Corners in Raleigh Little Theatre's production of Thornton Wilder's seminal Our Town. There's always been an elegiac quality to Wilder's work, but it's often overshadowed by the play's sense of nostalgia. In this production, that wistfulness is balanced by the knowledge that even in the idyllic memories of the past, moments of discontent lurk beneath the surface.
As TV's Mad Men reminds us, the literal meaning of nostalgia is "the pain of an old wound." Wilder's famously ends with the dead unwilling to dwell in their memories while being unable to stop what will happen. The immediate interpretation is that life is short and should be cherished, but Haskell Fitz-Simons' direction hints at something darker, perhaps best personified by the unnerving character of the town drunk, Simon Stimson (Brent Wilson), who sits apart from the other dead at the end, bitter at a life wasted.
The cramped quarters of RLT's stage give Grover's Corners more of a gothic and Dogville-esque tableau than a small town in the imagination; the space is covered with tables and chairs that have an oddly desolate look. Wilson's skeletal, detached presence as Stimson takes only a few minutes of the play's time, but the dark presence lingers, as does the angry cameo by the Man in the Auditorium (Timothy E. Locklear), who questions whether Grover's Corners has any perspective on social injustice.
In these moments, the production suggests that in looking back at the idealized moments of the past, we choose to ignore the hardships and realities beyond those memories. Even Chris Brown's matter-of-fact presence as the Stage Manager has a certain weariness to it; he seems not so much folksy and welcoming as a man who knows how the world works, for better or ill.
The other major roles are well-chosen. Steven Herd appears at first too adult to play George (he towers over Allison Powell's Emily), but his youthful spirit makes him right for the part; when he sinks his head at his father's rebukes or smiles at Emily, it's the reaction of a teenager wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Powell, who received a Cantey Award nomination for her work in last year's RLT production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is more age-appropriate for her part, which goes a way toward capturing the central tragedy of her character; she's a young woman in a limited world who comes to understand life at its very end.
Our Town has become particularly popular in the last few years, with a modern-dress version currently running off-Broadway becoming the most durable Our Town ever (Fitz-Simons says in the program notes that RLT's production was delayed due to the popularity of the Barrow Street Theatre's version). Perhaps it's because the play offers such a unique perspective on matters of life and death, or perhaps viewers find themselves pining for a simpler time. But the darkness at the edge of this production suggests that maybe things weren't quite as simple as they seemed.