San Francisco Theater Review: WILDER TIMES (Aurora Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on November 13, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of WILDER TIMES at Aurora in Berkeley

FAR FROM WILD

Thornton Wilder, especially as a playwright, looks to the commonality of all people to demonstrate the value in appreciating life, especially when the death of a loved one is involved. Although Wilder’s best-known work is Our Town, his many short plays contain the same theme. But staging Wilder can be tricky. In order for the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s work to shine in the theater, it must be presented in a naturalistic form, free from presentationalism, as was evidenced in David Cromer’s recent triumphant and revelatory production of Our Town.

Sadly, Barbara Oliver’s serviceable direction of Wilder Times, the four one-acts which opened last night at Aurora, makes for a wildly uneven night. Certainly there are whimsical and touching moments, and the acting can be grand, but two of the plays, Infancy and Childhood, are slight, lacking in the simple profundity normally associated with Wilder; therefore, Oliver needs to, but does not, offer a vision which would make these plays relevant to a modern audience. And Wilder’s most produced short play, The Long Christmas Dinner, feels more like the guest who stayed too long than the heartbreaking experience it could have been.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of WILDER TIMES at Aurora in Berkeley

Wilder suggested that his plays be staged in a thrust configuration, which is how Aurora is already set up; with the fine actors in the cast and an intimate space, it seemed like this would be the perfect theater for such an event. As requested by Wilder, Oliver uses a bare stage, simple sets, and minimal props, but there is a disproportionate amount of blocking center stage, and the choice to have actors mime in an amateurish fashion seems odd – the eating of a hot dog or slamming of a car door are often spatially incorrect, but we need those to help connect us to the performers.

The one-acts which constitute the first part of the evening are two of Wilder’s later short plays, Infancy and Childhood, first produced in 1962. Infancy, in which two grown men play babies in their perambulators in Central Park, is a farce. Oliver allows her actors to portray their roles as caricatures: both a nursemaid and a cop on his beat come across as both Vaudevillian and unbelievable, and the babies, who comment on the adults’ poor conduct and contemptible shortage of understanding, play the scene as if they were cigar-chomping Bowery Boys (think Baby Herman from Roger Rabbit). Since the play takes place in 1920, these choices are understandable, and Maggie Yule’s evocative costume design places us squarely in that era. But the rich amount of comedy in Wilder’s works, if played broad, fails to touch, move, inspire and/or disturb us. As with Neil Simon plays, nothing is duller than comic material played in a silly manner.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of WILDER TIMES at Aurora in Berkeley

Far and away, the most successful segment, which opens Act II, is The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, in which a family of four take a time-tripping car ride to visit a family member who has recently been in the hospital. This 1931 play, which incorporates the device of a Stage Manager similar to the one in Our Town, is Wilder at his best: Buried in the seemingly daily conversation, whether about mom’s staunch religious beliefs or advertisements along the road, is the enormity of the human experience and its universal language of despair and hope. Stacy Ross commands the evening as the no-nonsense mother, offering the understated but rich acting that, for the most part, just doesn’t resonate elsewhere in the evening. Since all of the actors are highly capable, appearing in more than one play, should we blame Thornton Wilder for this flat endeavor at the Aurora Theatre?

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of WILDER TIMES at Aurora in Berkeley

photos by Jessica Palopoli

Wilder Times
Aurora Theatre in Berkeley
scheduled to end on December 9, 2012
for tickets, call 510-843-4822 or visit http://www.AuroraTheatre.org

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