Trinity Repertory Company (Providence, RI)

ri-trinity.jpg

    Older woman presiding over the young wedding couple

Susannah Flood as Emily Webb, Barbara Meek as Stage Manager, and Eric Murdoch as George Gibbs in Trinity Repertory Company’s production of Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Thornton Wilder may have modeled Grover's Corners on Peterborough, New Hampshire, but cities and towns throughout New England claim his play Our Town as their own story of love, death, and life in a close-knit community. In January 2007, Trinity Repertory Company used a nontraditional staging to personalize this classic American drama for Providence, Rhode Island. The theater received an NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant of $25,000 to support the production.

Barbara Meek, an African- American actress who has been with the theater for more than 40 years, played the stage manager, a role typically filled by an older white male. As in any other production of Our Town, the stage manager introduced the townspeople to the audience and narrated Wilder’s three-act play. Meek also supervised a unique two-tier stage conceived by director Brian McEleney. The traditional lower level was strewn with chairs and tables for the characters in Our Town, including Emily Webb, George Gibbs, and Constable Warren. On the second floor, designer Eugene Lee created a faux Green Room where the off-stage actors relaxed in full view of the audience.

The show ran for six weeks, reaching more than 20,000 people -- almost 12 percent of the Providence population -- including the governor, the mayor, and half of the state's congressional delegation. Eight of the 44 shows were sold-out student matinees. Curt Columbus, artistic director of Trinity Rep, attributed the turnout to a sense of community ownership. Working with the City of Providence and the Providence public schools, the theater sponsored an essay contest for middle and high school students. The theater also collected photos of Providence taken circa 1911 for a lobby display.

"We tried to engage the community as much as possible, and it worked," Columbus said. "It was so moving to watch Thornton Wilder’s 1937 play turn into a contemporary play for this audience. ... I love Our Town so much. It is not the old chestnut that some people think it is. The play has intense contemporary impact if it's done well. There is nothing sentimental about it."

(From the NEA 2007 Annual Report)