Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Wilder Times'—four short plays by Thornton Wilder—at the Aurora

By Ken Bullock
Monday December 03, 2012 - 04:50:00 PM

"Whenever you get near the human race, there are layers and layers of nonsense." 

Thornton Wilder's best-known, of course, for 'Our Town,' where the quote's from, the bare stage small-town play, narrated by a stage manager, which has become something like an icon of Americana, almost lumped in with, say, Frank Capra movies (one reviewer even mentioned Norman Rockwell) as a reminder of a happier, more innocent pas—rather falsely, as Wilder's always after bigger game than provincialism making light of itself. "A little play, with all the big subjects in it," Wilder—a Berkeley High graduate—wrote his friend and mentor, Gertrude Stein. 

Aurora Theatre's staging four of Wilder's even "littler" plays as a program, 'Wilder Nights,' (Barbara Oliver directing) that highlights some of Wilder's concerns, and provides a few perspectives on the themes and ways of treatment he worked over and over. 

'Infancy' has a humorous, anxious nanny—played with panache by Heather Gordon—who utilizes the park where she takes her charge in a baby carriage as the stage for her anxieties, her servant's social life, as she kvetches about her lot in life, flirts with a comic Italo-American policeman (Soren Oliver), listens to Mrs. Boker's Yiddish-flavored chit-chat ... while the babies, played by grown-ups Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom, emerge from their perambulators and shoot the breeze, even more anxious and angry about their brief social experience, ignored by their elders. 

'Childhood' follows, a trio of kids (Marcia Pizzo, Gordon, Russell) elude their parents (Stacy Ross and Trybom) in a fantasy bus ride as pretend adults, yet presided over by the adults in the guise of bus driver and older passenger, as they learn through play some of life's intransigent side. The theme of mortality's taken up again after intermission with 'The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,' a family's little road trip to visit a married daughter, older sister, who's had a baby—and suffered tragedy—and is highlighted in the most famous of the quartet, 'The Long Christmas Dinner,' which inspired the famous breakfast table scene in 'Citizen Kane,' with a time lapse glimpse of generations stepping up to the holiday table together—and shuffling off alone into oblivion, but with a sprightly theatrical touch ... 

It's good to see some of Wilder's unique material back onstage in a form different than the overly-positivistic cliche 'Our Town's' too often become. Wilder mastered the short form, mined it for nuances and new kinds of representation he used in his major plays, yet the shorter ones, now mostly brought up in mentioning that influence, have their own life still, are refreshing, with that slightly acerbic air of Wilder's sensibility. 

There're problems here, too, not the least the staging of plays from very different eras together, but in reverse chronological order. 'Infancy' and 'Childhood are from the 1960s, part of an unfinished series on the Ages of Man Wilder projected, while the other two, which end the evening, are from the 30s, more self-enclosed works that resemble aspects of 'Our Town' or 'Skin of Our Teeth.' The constant seems to be family life, but that thematic way of lumping all four together has a way of detracting from their singularity, their individual takes on a range of themes, the secret ways they might work together and bring out the performers' abilities over the course of the evening. 

As it was, the individual actors—all good—sometimes got a little lost in the shuffle, while the ensemble didn't really come to the fore as a unit until 'The Long Christmas Dinner,' which also saw Soren Oliver's best moments, as well as a charming debut on the Aurora stage by a talented intern, Gwen Kingston. 

Everybody has the chance to show themselves to advantage as well as work closely together in this final play of the evening, while those leading up sometimes inadvertently feature one or another, or a few moments of a performance. Stacy Ross particularly comes forward in 'The Happy Journey ...'—with some nice work in tandem with Marcia Pizzo, mother comforting daughter. 

Aurora deserves congratulations for bringing back Wilder's shorter plays, almost a genre in themselves, which prepared for the little revolution in stagecraft of 'Our Town,' still performed constantly around the world. Maybe this production will encourage others to make new match-ups of his one-acts—pays like the unusual 'Pullman Car Hiawatha,' or the "playlets" he innovated, which may've helped break up what—to some—looked like sameness in the arrangement of these sensitive plants of the theater, each one opening at its own moment. 

Tuesday through Sunday at various times through December 9. 2081 Addison, near Shattuck. $32-$60. 843-4822;