I know he’s a fellow Berkeley High alum and all, but I could never get into Thornton Wilder. I’ve seen polished professional productions of Our Town and I’ve seen shakier community ones, but never one that I didn’t find mawkish. It’s just not my thing. So I’m maybe not the best audience for Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company’s assemblage of four short plays by Wilder, two from 1962 and two from 1931, but because it has a fabulous cast I decided to check it out anyway. I’m pleased to report that I found myself pleasantly surprised by two of the plays, even if the other two left me cold.
Wilder’s not much of one for sets, so Eric Sinkkonen makes the stage look like stationery with gilded trim, like you might find on a wedding invitation. Any needed props and furnishings are carried in by the cast between scenes as they sing quaint old-timey songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The props are a curious mixture of tangible and mimed, such as imaginary chocolates plucked from a real box. Maggie Yule’s simple dresses and other period outfits are in a subdued autumnal palette, largely of browns.
Infancy in particular is a delight in founding artistic director Barbara Oliver’s lively staging, just because it’s so unexpectedly funny. Like all the other shorts, it introduces an idea and then repeats it over and over, with every conversation in the play working hard to drive it home. In this case the thesis is that all infants are geniuses thirsty to learn as much as they can, and their intellects are only deadened by all the inane baby talk and goofy face-making they’re thwarted with in their early years. The babies are filled with angst over all the contradictory information they’re given: “Sometimes you call ’em fingers, but sometimes you call ’em piggies!”
Much of the humor comes from the spectacle of seeing two grown men, Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom, playing babies in oversize prams, throwing tantrums because nobody’s teaching them to talk. It’s like a distant prequel to Endgame, only with baby carriages instead of dustbins. Heather Gordon is hilarious as a working-class young mother with a thick Brooklyn accent who just wants to lose herself in a romance novel, and Stacy Ross is tremendously assured as a cultured German mother who’s learned to soothe her baby with times tables and other factoids instead of lullabies. Søren Oliver is over the top as a paranoid policeman with a broad Italian accent, an aggressive ongoing flirtation with Gordon’s young mother, and an irrational fear of babies who know too much. Some of the speeches go on a little long, especially the policeman’s opening monologue, but it’s a charmer for all that.
As the title implies, Childhood has a similar theme: parents just don’t understand kids, and kids just don’t understand parents. With Marcia Pizzo’s Caroline, the oldest sister, as the ringleader, three sibs spend all their time playing elaborate games about being orphans off to see the world, much to the distress of Ross as the gentle, long suffering mother and Trybom as the fun-loving, hard-drinking father. There’s a fretful, bitter wariness about Pizzo’s Caroline, especially when adults are trying to be all reasonable with her. “Children don’t want to be children all the time,” she chides. Gordon charmingly spunky as younger sister Dodie, and Russell makes a cute little guy as Billee, seemingly the youngest. They go on a fantasy road trip with incognito dad as the boisterous bus driver and mom as a sad passenger whose children have run away. Despite some nicely animated performances, this one drags on and on.
After intermission come the better-known early works. The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden is also about a road trip, but this time a more literal one that a New Jersey family makes to visit the eldest, married daughter, who’s recovering from a hospital stay. The group is full of familiar Wilder types: the no-nonsense but kindly Christian mother who won’t abide poor manners but defers all decisions to her husband (Ross); the frazzled but jovial father (Søren Oliver); the restless but good-hearted kids (Gordon and Russell); and the sweet but haunted young woman trying to put a brave face on things (Pizzo). It’s sweet and sometimes mildly amusing but mostly very, very sentimental, a Norman Rockwell picture of family life.
Trybom sticks to the sidelines, reading the lines of all the various neighbor ladies the family chats with on their way out of town with a deadpan expression. He hauls props onto the stage and at one point comes onstage to play the role of a gas station attendant. If you read the program you’ll find that he’s the Stage Manager, like the one in Our Town, but there’s nothing in this play establishing exactly who he is or what he’s doing. And as the play goes on, this device is pretty much abandoned and this not-quite-character fades into the background.
The Long Christmas Dinner is exactly what it says it is, only the title is an understatement. This immaculately crafted one-act is one continuous family Christmas dinner that goes on for 90 years. People repeat the same small talk over and over and age visibly, some dying off while others are carried in as newborns by the nurse (Gwen Kingston, who otherwise appears only as one of the singing furniture-haulers).
This is the only play in which background scenery plays a role. Simple cutouts of a black curtain on one side of the wings and a flower-festooned pillar on the other represent an exit for characters to wander off to as they die and an entrance for the newly born, respectively.
It starts with the first Christmas in the new home of a young couple (Oliver and Pizzo) looking after the husband’s elderly mother (Ross) and continues as their children are born and grow old in turn, replaced by the next generation until the last family member is left in the house, everyone else either dead or moved away.
Everyone plays multiple roles in this one as people become their parents or grandparents. There are a several priceless moments along the way, such as Pizzo’s moment of distress when she’s moved to the old lady seat at the table, or Ross’s conspiratorial snort as the second-generation patriarch’s spinster sister reacts to her nephew’s rebellion against the static life of the town.
It’s bittersweet and inventive and touching, beautifully played by the ensemble. As with the rest of the plays, you get the idea early on and then it keeps going and going, but in this case going and going is very much the point.
Show #110 of 2012, attended November 11.