The Spotlight: James McMenamin in 'Our Town' at the Broad Stage
Like just about everybody else, James McMenamin hadn’t read Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” since high school. So when he got the call to audition for George Gibbs, the play’s all-American boy next door, he naturally reread it. Something in the play surprised him — an unexpected closeness with the character. “I know this guy,” McMenamin realized. “I played ball with this guy. I know exactly who he is.” Three years later, McMenamin has played George in about 670 performances — in New York, where he joined the cast after the the play's Chicago debut, and now in Los Angeles.
Any major differences between this and the New York production?
The room’s drastically bigger. In New York we played to 151 seats and now we’re playing to over 360 seats. Everybody in “Our Town” talks a little bit louder now and enunciates a little bit more, but the audience seems to be responding just the same. Everybody’s very close still, the way the stage is configured. You can’t get very far from us.
Has George remained interesting after nearly 700 performances?
George is a complicated guy. He’s a little arrogant and a little dim, and enough happens that there’s plenty to explore on a regular basis. . . . [But] when you do something 670 times, you start to realize how little you actually have to do. After about a hundred shows — this was a huge eye-opening experience — it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do so little, I know this guy so well, I know him inside and out, and I can just be.’ I can sit here and be George Gibbs, and the audience accepts that.
Some people — not me — dismiss “Our Town” as quaint. What say you?
I think that’s the trap of the play. People attack it like it’s some sentimental chestnut, which it’s not. It’s a harsh and brutal and honest play.
I grew up in central Pennsylvania between two very small towns. I was captain of the soccer team. You couldn’t go to the restaurant without knowing everybody in the building.
How do you get interested in acting in small-town Pennsylvania?
I joined the drama club when I was 15 because I was trying to date a girl who was in the drama club. Much to my surprise I was cast in some plays. I did the musical thing. I played Jack in “Into the Woods” and Conrad Birdie.
How does George stack up against previous roles — any typecasting early on?
For years I was just a character actor where I would play really dim guys or really bad guys. I do some carpentry work when the acting goes dry — which I haven’t had to do in a number of years now, which is wonderful — but right before I was cast in this, I was hanging drywall with some buddies. They were giving me a hard time because the last couple roles I had played were pretty bad guys. I literally was like, ‘Well, I’ll never play George Gibbs, but at least I’m getting the work.’ I swear to God, it was the next day that the agent called and was like, ‘Do you want to come in for a production of ‘Our Town’?” I went in there with my steel-toe boots on from hanging drywall and kept getting called back. And here I am.
— Jason Kehe
The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun., 2 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Ends Feb. 12. $40-$150. (310) 434-3200 or www.thebroadstage.com
Photo: Top, James McMenamin plays George Gibbs in "Our Town" at the Broad Stage. Lower, McMenamin as George in a scene with Jennifer Grace. Credits: Top, Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times. Lower, Iris Schneider.