Unlike “Our Town,” where people seem human and occasionally do normal things like eat and even sit down, and unlike “The Music Man” where there is trouble in River City and thus some plot, “Winesburg, Ohio” seems to have no shape and no point. It is as though we are leafing through an American album of unhappiness.
Maybe it’s something in the water. Why else would everyone in this small town be depressed? Some are also crazy, some are desperate, some are disappointed, but nobody is happy, nobody is satisfied, nobody is even cheerful.
This downer of a tuner is based on Sherwood Anderson’s novel about 20 “grotesques”; mercifully, the show limits itself to seven.
Director Terrence Nolan keeps these fragments tightly woven, and the many scenes flow briskly. The songs are almost all remarkably similar (like the people, despite their quirks) and thus instantly forgettable, although all are sung by fine voices. They sound like faux folk ballads, just as contrived as the simplicity of the set.
The narrator is called the Writer in the program, and is, one assumes, Sherwood Anderson. In the novel, Anderson’s voice is archly modernist, more distinct a character than anyone he describes; here, this figure (Andrew White) is so entirely colorless he serves no real function: We could follow the storylines, such as they are, without him.
The other omnipresent character is George (Brian Hissong), the 18-year-old newspaper reporter who gets into everybody’s business. Although he keeps talking about his dreams and singing about his longings, his actions are entirely passive; his most frequently repeated line is “I don’t know.”
And despite being told that the bond between this son and his mother is strong, he does not bother to visit her on her sickbed and chooses to go on a date rather than see her when she is dying.
This is not a sympathetic young man, although the show seems to want us to like and trust him. Hissong has almost no stage presence, and thus we don’t know what to make of him, leaving a large hole in the middle of the proceedings.
When a young man (Darren Michael Hengst) with artistic hopes actually does escape, he finds that New York is full of thieves and pretentious arty types, thus proving, apparently, that there is no point in escape. When a stranger blows into town, he tells his sad (what else?) story of escape from his bourgeois life and then, after a couple of drinks, decides Winesburg, Ohio, is too small a town and gets back on the train.
We learn about the gifted schoolteacher (William Zielinski) who was driven away (but is still inexplicably there) by a boy’s sexual accusations, and now his hands flap constantly “like the wings of an imprisoned bird” (although Zielinski’s hands are closed). We meet the Reverend (Ben Dibble), stung into eloquence by sexual longing when he sees a neighbor undressed through a window.
Elizabeth (Derin Altay) poignantly remembers her girlhood when she was “young and pretty” and rode a bicycle and wanted to run away with an actor, while her young self (Elisa Matthews) rides that bicycle and they sing together. These are sometimes moving but finally only random glimpses.
The one moment of relief from all this dreariness comes early in act one, when the town’s baseball team wins its first game in four years; the lively song led by the new coach (Tony Freeman) is the only musical piece that doesn’t sound like a lament.
The last lines (also the concluding lines of the novel), describe George finally escaping from Winesburg on the much-sung-about train. When he opens his eyes, the town has disappeared “and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.” Maybe that is the problem with this dull show: It is merely background.