For David Cromer, 2009 was a special year.
The show became a long-running hit and claimed two Lucille Lortel Awards, one for the production and the other for Cromer’s direction. The production also earned Cromer an Obie, an annual Village Voice award.
Also that year, Cromer made his Broadway debut with a revival of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
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And he came to Kansas City for the first time.
He directed a stunning production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at the Copaken Stage, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s downtown venue, which still ranks among the finest productions theatergoers have seen under artistic director Eric Rosen’s leadership. The show earned across-the-board good reviews, including a rave by former KC resident Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal.
Now Cromer is back to direct “Our Town” once again, this time at the Spencer Theatre.
Rosen and Cromer met when they were ambitious young theater artists in Chicago, and Rosen had been working on getting Cromer back to the Rep since “The Glass Menagerie.”
Scheduling conflicts prevented a return visit until now. Rosen said Cromer was motivated in part by the honor of opening the Rep’s 50th anniversary season.
“You know, theater people move a lot through sentimentality and friendship,” Rosen said. “David and I have known each other for 20 years and knew each other when we were young and dirt poor.”
For his part, Cromer said he had been looking for a way to get back to the Rep ever since “The Glass Menagerie” closed.
“I really, really wanted to do this,” he said. “Eric and I have been trying to figure out how to come back here every year and I really, really wanted to … (but) I had a very tiny window to do it in.”
The Barrow Street production of “Our Town” was unusual in the way it placed the actors and the action in close proximity to the viewers. Theatergoers were close enough to reach out and touch the performers in most scenes. Cromer himself played the Stage Manager, the narrator who guides us through the lives of the stolid residents of Grover’s Corners, N.H., in the early 20th century.
Cromer explained that the New York production was a remount of an earlier “Our Town” he had staged for the Hypocrites, an important storefront theater company in Chicago.
The idea of directing and acting made sense to him because the Stage Manager is such an unusual role, part Greek chorus, part commentator, part observer. The Stage Manager is the lens through which the audience experiences the play.
“I think I was interested in the idea that there was the play and the audience and that I, playing the stage manager, could stand between the two and bridge the gap,” Cromer said.
Cromer won’t be playing the Stage Manager in the Rep production. Indeed, the Barrow Street version ran so long that he was eventually succeeded by other actors as he moved on to new directing projects.
He later directed the play in Los Angeles and Boston. He will direct it again this fall in London. In each case, he demanded a stage-to-audience configuration that stripped away theatrical artifice — in keeping with Wilder’s intent — and placed the viewers amid the action.
That’s what he’s doing at the Rep. A stage has been built on top of what would normally be the orchestra in the Spencer. Some viewers will see the play from the stage. Others will be seated in the upper seating section.
“We’re trying to figure out how to get the audience as close to the play as possible,” Cromer said. “One of the things I love about doing it in a big theater like the Rep is that you have the small stage surrounded by the big, universal theater. The play certainly announces that it’s a play. It’s always insisting it is a play.”
Wilder’s 1938 three-act play claimed a Pulitzer Prize and is frequently produced. But it is sometimes dismissed as a “high school play,” a sepia-toned piece of Americana, nostalgic and frothy. But Wilder had created a new kind of play, one that eschewed conventional realism, one that has influenced playwrights ever since.
His thematic goal was nothing less than the meaning of life, our place in the cosmos, illustrated through the repeated contrast of the small details of daily life with the vastness of an unlimited universe.
Cromer’s version in New York essentially desaturated any sentimentality. There are three important film versions of the play (two television productions, one starring Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager, the other with Spalding Gray) and the 1940 film with Frank Craven repeating his Broadway performance as the Stage Manager.
“Frank Craven in the film has what I would consider a consciously put-on warmth, and that eventually turns into a kind of remove,” Cromer said. “I think sometimes people want this play to be warmer than it is.”
Cromer said he first encountered the play when he saw the 1977 version with Holbrook.
“I remember being very struck by the space they used,” he said. “They set it in a big empty sound stage and I remember being very impressed. Later, I chanced upon the Lincoln Center version that they shot in the ’80s with Spalding Gray, and I was really struck by him in it. He was this elegant, tweedy, salt-and-pepper-hair New Englander, but he was also distant.”
All things considered, Gray got it right, Cromer believes.
“I think it’s dead-on,” he said.
Cromer said he is gratified by the continuing high reputation enjoyed by his production of “The Glass Menagerie,” but he said he couldn’t have done it without the Rep’s support and an excellent design team.
“I don’t know what it would be like if I saw it now,” he said. “I thought those designers and actors and these producers were incredible. That was a special one for me.… That didn’t feel like a job to me at all. That felt like being an artist. It turned out absolutely the way I hoped.”
The Rep production features a cast of out-of-towners and Kansas City-based actors, including Rep veterans Gary Neal Johnson, Richard Brown and Peggy Friesen.
Johnson and Brown, Cromer said, play crucial one-scene roles. They aren’t exactly cameos, but close. Cromer said it was important to have seasoned actors associated with the Rep in the show kicking off the 50th anniversary season.
Rosen said “Our Town” is his favorite play, one that led the way for much of the theater that followed. And he vividly recalled his reaction after seeing Cromer’s New York production.
“I thought, oh my gosh, I can never do ‘Our Town’ now,” he said. “It’s my favorite play but anything I could do would be either copying or dodging David’s production.”
So it’s enough for Rosen to bring Cromer’s version to local audiences.
“What David has done, what his production did, is kind of rescue ‘Our Town’ from that … almost dismissal of it,” Rosen said. “He did that by following the rules and doing exactly what Wilder wrote. It is exactly the play Wilder wrote.… We’re all sort of standing on the shoulders of Thornton Wilder. What’s amazing is that it’s an experiment that worked.”