Helen Hunt Runs the Show in “Our Town”

The moment she enters, walking quickly, in her masculine work boots and jeans, you know that she is a woman in charge. That’s what a real stage manager is, after all, but in most productions of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, Our Town, the Stage Manager is an old white man, replete with gray hair, a pipe and an archetypal New England accent that implies age, wisdom and tradition.

Actor Helen Hunt, as the Stage Manager in David Cromer’s production currently running at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif., has none of these things. And yet, surprisingly, she, unlike the Norman Rockwell-esque narrators of most productions, has real power.

Set in the early 20th-century fictional New England town of Grover’s Corners, Our Town chronicles the cycle of life–from daily existence to love and marriage to birth and death–in distinctly American terms. That is, if American means small town, Christian, white and middle class. For Grover’s Corners is a place where “Polish Town’s across the tracks” and “women vote indirect.”

Whereas in most productions the narrating Stage Manager, speaking from a position of privilege, takes for granted that the values of Grover’s Corners are the ultimate American values, Hunt, without judgment, gives it to us the way it was. She does not pontificate or eulogize, she presents the town and its inhabitants and allows the audience to form their own opinions about this particular version of Amerca’s past. Her straightforward delivery, combined with the fact she is a woman telling the story, transforms the narrative from a given to a question.

Though unusual, the direct speech and modern dress of this production actually suit the writing. Wilder, with his romantic and yet surprisingly plainspoken text, both valorizes and interrogates traditional American values. The interrogation part is lost in most productions, which make the simple, bygone America of the play into an object of nostalgia. This production, on the other hand, creates genuine distance between the values of Grover’s Corners and those of today, and thereby allows us to wonder whether we really would, if we could, return to those times. The realization that we might rather not mirrors the lesson Emily learns in the final act: “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance … .”

The great achievement of the production is that even though it successfully avoids nostalgia for a patriarchal past, it doesn’t lose any of its sentiment. In fact, Emily’s tearful realization that “all that was going on and we never noticed” hits even closer to home when she says it in a sweater that I’m pretty sure came from J Crew.

Cromer’s production could have gone further in destabilizing our vision of a perfect American past: Other roles written for men could have been played by women (the professor and the choir director come to mind), and the production could have included actors of color. Storytelling is a way of exercising power–of giving voice to the voiceless, of changing the narrative of history. Casting Helen Hunt as the narrator, importantly, democratizes the role of storyteller. Next time, Cromer should democratize the role of protagonist as well.

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Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.