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It's David Cromer's 'Our Town' -- we just live there

January 8, 2012 |  8:17 am

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To interview the director David Cromer, whose production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” will open at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Jan. 18, is to feel subtly but masterfully directed.

If you’re slow with a follow-up question, he’ll prompt you: “Can I elaborate? Sure.”

While you’re still trying to turn on your digital recorder, he has already teased out the subtext: “The scene in ‘Our Town’ when Emily asks her mother, ‘Mama, am I pretty?’ That’s such a giant part of every moment. You want to ask a great question here, I want to give a great answer. We both want to be ‘pretty’ in this scenario.”

Leaving you to grapple with this insight into your character, he picks up his cellphone. “I’m not checking messages, but I need to take a picture of the shadow of that orchid on the wall because it’s really beautiful.”

You wonder if maybe one reason critics and audiences have responded so worshipfully to Cromer’s “Our Town,” which began in a quirky little Wicker Park theater in Chicago and moved on to run for 500 performances off Broadway (the longest run in the play’s history), is that they were directed to do so.

But to hear Cromer tell it, he’s not so much a director as an art restorer, stripping away the varnish applied by generations of well-meaning regional stages and high-school drama clubs to reveal Thornton’s original vision. Although the spare, meta-theatrical “Our Town” was radical for 1938, it has since acquired a patina of homespun, old-fashioned sentimentality. Cromer scraped all that off. Initially, he took on the part of the Stage Manager — an all-knowing narrator — and played him not as a simple yarn-spinning New Englander but as a brusque director with a clipboard. As himself, basically.

But when “the play kept running and I had to leave,” as he says in a story in Sunday's Arts & Books section, he rotated a series of other actors into the part — including Helen Hunt, who is reprising it in L.A.

Of the production's famously intimate staging — the cast is inches from the audience and the lights remain up throughout — Hunt says, “When I performed it for the first time, it would be hard to think of a time that I was more scared. I realized how much hiding you can do as an actor that I couldn’t do in this part.”

"People sometimes interpret the play as saying, ‘You have to live life every moment,’ ” says Cromer. “I don’t know that I agree with that. It says that every moment is pretty stunning if you look at it, but you can’t live like that. You’d just be staring at the orchids every second, like ‘Can you believe it?’ You’d wander into traffic, you’d never go to work. You have to miss some of it, and regret that you missed some of it, and that’s part of it, too.”

RELATED:

Broad Stage to feature Helen Hunt in 'Our Town'

David Cromer's 'House of Blue Leaves': What did critics think?

-- Margaret Gray

Photo: Helen Hunt and David Cromer at the Broad Stage. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

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