To kick off its 44th year and 10th for artistic director Michael Wilson, the Hartford Stage opens its season with the perennial crowd favorite “Our Town.” Here, legendary star Hal Holbrook takes his turn as the Stage Manager, just as Paul Newman did in Westport only a few years back. And while other townspeople ably fulfill their familiar roles as newspaper editor, mother, doctor, daughter, in a mostly by-the-book production, it’s Holbrook’s night as he provides a tender poignancy and appropriate melancholic note to the sold-out proceedings.
Looking almost as spry and battle-ready as ever, Holbrook, 82, is no doubt approaching the end of his long, varied and illustrious career. This isn’t, however, merely a case of trotting out a popular actor in his waning years, but more a case of perfect casting.
Holbrook, who’s played the part twice before (at the Long Wharf Theater and for television), has the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he wanders out onto Jeff Cowies’ minimalist stage. One has trouble imagining a more appropriate stage manager — and that includes Newman.
Capably helmed here by Gregory Boyd with look-sharp period costumes from Alejo Vietti and subtle, evocative lighting by Rui Rita, the rest of the company is more than able as well; it’s the play that is a little worse for wear.
While “Our Town” was originally very innovative, there’s now something of a forced, even pretentious theatricality to the play: the deliberately empty stage, the propless actors busy with sometimes baffling pantomimes and the continual breakdown of the fourth wall.
This is particularly true of a first act that feels digressive and pre-ambling and isn’t helped by actors sitting in the audience, pretending to be modern-day theatergoers asking questions — but who feel a bit out of time when addressing those from Grover’s Corners. And while it’s admittedly amusing when one of the actors gets a call on her cell phone, serving as a reminder for audience members to turn theirs off, this touch takes the viewer further out of the period of the play.
Notable perfs include Frank Converse’s comic rendering of editor Webb; Noble Shropshire as the town organist and outcast; the two mothers, Josie de Guzman as Mrs. Gibbs and Annalee Jefferies as Mrs. Webb; as well as a nicely understated turn by Donovan Patton as George Gibbs.
Sound man John Gromada provides everything from a train whistle and a door closing to the sound of George Gibbs running through rain puddles.
But the symbolism of the play’s three acts, beginning with the birth of twins, moving to the beginning of middle age with the wedding between George and Emily and ending with the third-act graveyard in the bitter cold of winter, can be a little, well, overt. It’s no wonder the play is such a favorite with high school students.
What doesn’t go out of style, however, is Wilder’s unsentimental preoccupation with mortality — the fleeting preciousness of this life and our stubborn, human lack of attention to this fact.
“It goes so fast … Do any human beings ever realize while they live it — every, every minute?” observes Emily (played by Ginna Carter, who delivers such lines too earnestly).
Insights of this sort sound a lot less precious and a lot more hard-earned coming from Holbrook. “You’re 20, 21, you make a few decisions and then whoosh you’re 70,” he says. Who better to give it to us straight than Hal Holbrook, an actor who has more than earned the right to offer up such clear-eyed, inconvenient truths with no apologies whatsoever?