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Talk of latest ‘Our Town’ full of raves

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David Cromer never set out to make anybody cry.

“It’s not the hardest thing in the world to make people cry. You can make people cry if you play ‘Danny Boy,’” says Cromer, director of the production of “Our Town” that will open at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Jan. 18, starring Helen Hunt as the Stage Manager.

So he didn’t anticipate the strong emotions his pared, intimate staging of Thornton Wilder’s American classic would provoke first in Chicago (“utterly astounding,” said Tribune critic Chris Jones) and then off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre, where, to critical raves and word-of-mouth testimonials about its cathartic powers, it officially became the longest-running production in the play’s 72-year history, with more than 500 performances.

That record was previously held by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production in 1938, which had 336 performances. Since then, “Our Town,” a staple of regional theaters and high school drama clubs (large cast, minimal scenery), is often regarded as a folksy period piece, an homage to small New England towns and homespun values — not so much as must-see radical theater.

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Cromer had no intention of breaking records or starting perceptual revolutions.

“I’m a freelance director, I was offered this job, and so I did it. You don’t know you’re going to end up in a really long, complicated relationship with a play. You’ll go, ‘Eh, I’ll do this job,’ and you get through it.”

Looking back, though, you can sometimes see the seeds of a great romance destined to blossom.

“A good friend of mine, the actor Ian Westerfer, saw an early preview in Chicago,” Cromer recalls. He developed the production there with the company the Hypocrites, who perform in a cozy basement space at Wicker Park’s Chopin Theatre.

“We were just furious at Ian because he was laughing and cackling and guffawing. And we’re up there acting our … off. Then lights come up and we realize that he’s blubbering, red-faced, with projectile tears,” Cromer says. “We’re like, ‘Oh. Wow, wow, wow. What the …?”

Cromer, 47 and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, is at least a finalist for the smartest person in any room. Even his habitual self-deprecation can seem like a form of noblesse oblige. He has a prickly, unsentimental attitude to his work and reacts somewhat irritably to suggestions that his widely admired directorial approach was anything more than a respectful reading of the play.

“The design team and I felt like Wilder’s intent was to get rid of artifice, which is why he did things that were relatively radical in 1938 on Broadway: no scenery, a very casual conversational feel.”

Cromer’s choices, including playing the Stage Manager himself in the initial productions, may have struck traditionalists as bold and edgy, but for him they emerged from the same impulse.

“I wasn’t really directing myself because I wasn’t really acting,” he explains. “The Stage Manager comes out and sets up the play to the audience very straightforwardly: ‘We’re in the town of Grover’s Corners, the train tracks are over there, etc.’ It felt artificial to hire an actor to run the evening, and I thought, what if I just did it myself since I was doing it anyway, and that would erase one more layer of artifice.”

After a while, though, in New York, “The play kept running, and I had to leave. And while my conceit was very clever, having better actors in the part actually improves the evening.”

Replacement Stage Managers during the New York run included Michael Shannon, Michael McKean and Hunt, who is reprising the role here.

“People think the Stage Manager should have a pipe and elbow patches,” says Hunt, who while not the first female Stage Manager in “Our Town” history is definitely part of a select group. But she and Cromer stress that his decision to cast her was, as Hunt phrases it, “pure and not some cool, flashy idea.”

“I have to say that I had not been that open to the idea of a woman doing it prior to Helen coming up, which I know is a terrible thing to admit,” Cromer says. Pressed about why, he shrugs and says, “I don’t know.” He ultimately offers, “I guess there’s something that seems male to me in the emotional recalcitrance of the part.”

“But when Helen came up, I realized it was just that no one had suggested the right person. She has that dry wit, that great, dry wit.”

Hunt is an “Our Town” veteran, having played Emily in a production at Lincoln Center with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager in 1989. When she saw Cromer’s production in New York, as she puts it, she “had to be carried out sobbing.” She called him to express her admiration, but it wasn’t until about a year later that some lighthearted jokes turned into a serious offer.

She recalls, “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ Because the unadorned quality of the production is what allows the work to come through, and am I going to ‘adorn’ it in some way, being a girl, and one who’s well known? What gives me the authority to come out and say these words?”

“And he said, ‘You have the authority because you love it, because you have a strong feeling about it, and because you have something you want to say about it.’”

No text was changed to reflect the Stage Manager’s new gender identity, but Hunt, 48, who has a daughter, Makena Lei, and a stepson, Emmett, with her partner Matthew Carnahan, interprets the role in a distinctly maternal light.

“If you run the play through the filter of mothering, aging, being a girl, having a girl, all these things start to pop out of the play, and when David does it, other things pop out.”

“People who had never seen the play before told me, ‘I don’t understand how it was not played by a woman your age. It seems to have so much to say about what it means to be a mother every day.’ My friends said they ran home afterward and looked their kids in the eye, because of the scene where Emily begs her mother, ‘Just look at me one minute.’ You go home and you stare at your kids as hard as you can.”

Hunt, best known for her Emmy-winning role on “Mad About You” and her Oscar-winning performance in “As Good as It Gets,” has kept a lower profile since the 1990s. She wrote and directed the movie “Then She Found Me” (2007) and is increasingly returning to her stage roots, not only acting but working behind the scenes to make productions happen. She was a major force behind the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ “Much Ado About Nothing” last December at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, in which she starred as Beatrice. And she was also instrumental in bringing “Our Town” to the L.A. area.

“I really wanted people I care about here to see this. There’s a world of smart, artistic people here, in my neighborhood, in my “Our Town.” I had begun to talk to Dale [Franzen, Broad stage director] about how I live here [on the Westside], and I want to be part of a theatrical community.

“I initially thought we could go in the smaller space [The Edye Second Space],” Hunt says. “Then David came out with the designer and they got very excited about how they might re-imagine the show on the main stage.”

Cromer says, “Wilder goes back and forth between looking at very intimate, close-up details of human life and then pulling back to say, ‘We are specks in this universe.’” Although the Broad’s stage and seating will be reconfigured to create the intimacy of the original production, “the big, cathedral-like space offers us this sense of theater as a universe around something small.”

Cromer, who has never worked in L.A. before, acknowledges that there’s some pressure. “It’s difficult to deal with how praised this thing has been,” he says, cautioning, “I mean, the Messiah has not arrived. It’s merely an evening in the theater.”

“It has always been our intention to get out of the way of the play, and I think we can trust the play is going to work, and I hope people will enjoy it. I am terrified, yes, but there’s nothing we can do about it except take our chance.”

calendar@latimes.com


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