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Director's Cuts: David Cromer On 'Our Town'

Andi Enns
Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play about small town life in Grover's Corners, has been a staple of high school theater for so long, one would think its commercial prospects would be slim. 

But director David Cromer's 2009 production Off-Broadway was a smash hit, chalking up the longest run in its 76-year history. Cromer directs the current production at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. 

David Cromer answered these questions as part of our monthly series, Director's Cuts

I think people think they know Our Town but I want to hear your take on it or your summarization of it.

It's interesting you say people think they know Our Town. I mean, you can't speak for everybody but it's sort of given to you in high school. It's one of those plays they make you read in high school or see in high school or be in in high school.

I was thinking earlier… that it's about breakfast (laughs). That it's about the universal and the particular in your whole life over the course of a breakfast.

You mention it's been a staple of high school drama departments for years, and having done this inventive, wildly successful production, has Our Town been misjudged or devalued or what for all these years?

I wouldn't place a judgment on anyone saying they devalued it or misinterpreted it but I guess I'd say, since you're used to it, you don't think about it again. You don't think about it as much or you don't think about it anew.

So I guess, in a lot of ways, that's one of those things that happens in the play ideally, is that it shows you initially these very mundane things. People talk about breakfast and they deliver the milk and they deliver  the newspaper and they talk about their homework and they say, 'Can I carry your books home for you?' But there's a lot there.

Honestly, we did actually set out not to subvert Our Town but to say, 'How would we get it to do that again?'

Credit courtesy: Kansas City Repertory Theatre

What was your relation to it [Our Town] before and what is it now, that you're still willing to come to Kansas City to direct it?

My relation to it was this: I knew it was beautiful and I knew it was great. But I didn't know it was as great as it turned out to be.

What I'm about to say sounds very much like something someone says in an interview, and since I'm being interviewed that's fine. But it is absolutely true. I have...I get...I can't...it sounds good to me every minute I hear it. And it keeps giving. And I can't crack it. And believe me, I'm the laziest guy in the world. If I feel like I've cracked it, I'm done. And I'm a slightly better person when I'm working on it.

The Kansas City Rep space is much bigger than the Barrow Street Theatre [off-Broadway theater in New York] and I hear there are going to be some interesting things done.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

What can you talk about?

Sure, easily. The Rep, the first thing out of their mouths is, 'We're very used to moving the space around.' They're very into that, and it's very hard to get theaters to do that. So this is glorious and refreshing.

What is usually the orchestra section, the main floor, we've created a floor and we've put seats sitting down on the ground there. We've tried to get rid of the traditional barrier between the audience and the show. 

Credit Andi Enns / Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Director David Cromer (at right) talks to the cast on the first day of rehearsals for 'Our Town.'

Is there a scene in the show that epitomizes what Grover's Corners and these residents are about? 

There's a speech by the Stage Manager in the middle of act one we refer to as the Babylon speech...And the gist of it is they're going to talk about what they're going to put in the cornerstone. And it's going to keep and be opened up in a thousand years, he says, and we're going to put in a Bible, and a copy of the constitution, and plays of William Shakespeare, and he says, 'What do you say, folks? What do you think?'

And you have to think about, how would you represent yourself, and then he says, and this is the line that kills me, I think it's absolutely one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in the play, he says, 'You know Babylon once had two million people in it. And all we know about them is the names of the kings, and some copies of wheat contracts, and contracts for the sale of slaves, yet every night, all of those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, same as here. See what I mean?'

And he doesn't contextualize it any more than that. He makes those statements, says 'See what I mean?' Put it in the audience's lap and if you don't see what he means, we're going to keep trying to show you. I think it's that. That our world is so big, let alone the universe. It's hard to wrap our heads around it. It's hard to look past our noses. And that's one of the many challenges of our lives, is that time passes and we forget all of the…we're sitting here stuck in real time, struggling through every minute, straining away, straining away, as he says in the play.

So that's a big one for me. Who are we, who do you leave behind, who do we remember. There's a lot in there.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents Our Town, September 5 - 28, Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-235-2700. 

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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