I've seen 'Our Town' on stage several times, dating back 50-some years to my small high school. I've seen it once on the small screen with Hal Holbrook, and including (I believe) John Houseman. But this is the best I have seen, and Paul Newman deserves a majority of the credit for this. He's about my age and I have watched him turn from the handsome, virile, often rebellious leading man to an old character actor. But this time he owns the stage. In live stage, I have never seen facial expression used really effectively: I've always been too far away from the actors. I don't recall Holbrook doing much in this area: I recall a rather straight narrative style that time. Newman is extraordinary. The expressions and the timing added a quality I don't ever recall seeing. The camera closed in appropriately and effectively. And for the first time I saw the Stage Manager turn from the simple travelogue narrator he appears at the opening to an identity at the closing moments I had never recognized before.
(I'm trying to be cautious and not spoil the end. Is it possible to spoil it? Hasn't everyone who enjoys American stage already seen 'Our Town', like me, enough times they can almost speak the dialogue of that final scene along with the characters?)
The play is so familiar that the sparse set comes naturally. This production actually used an item or two that I don't recall from earlier ones, but it still seems right. I was much impressed by the lighting, pulling the action up out of the overall darkness. Some things worked less well, I thought. George and Emily aged, and this was harder to do when the camera could zoom in and show their faces. With no makeup changes, they were left with dialogue and voice to convince the viewer, as I didn't feel movements showed the aging effectively. The same applied to the two sets of parents. Nonetheless, when Emily held the stage in the last scene, she still made it one of the most moving moments in theater.
I am intrigued by the critical response to 'Our Town'. Early reviews seem to be enthusiastic, but some critics since seem to consider it too light, too trivial, to be listed among the great ones like Williams's and Miller's works. But aren't we talking here about the universal themes of life? Isn't that serious enough?
Find a copy of it if you can. It's one of Paul Newman's great moments.
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