Review: 'Wilder Times,' at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company

November 12, 2012

By Karen D'Souza
For The San Jose Mercury News

"The quandary of our little lives is at the center of all of Wilder's plays. That's what make his pieces timeless, even in our future-obsessed society. Even his short pieces ache with the epic struggles of being alive."

Long before the stage manager invited us to visit the folks in Grover's Corners in the iconic "Our Town," he narrated the journey of the Kirby clan in "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden."

Happy Journey 1.jpgMother (Stacy Ross, left) and the children (Patrick Russell, Heather Gordon) read billboards while father (Soren Oliver, right) drives in Thornton Wilder's "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" in Aurora Theatre's "Wilder Times" Photo: Jessica Palopoli / SF

The omniscient figure is one of the many pleasures of "Wilder Times," a celebration of the work of Thornton Wilder, also beloved for "The Skin of Our Teeth" and "The Matchmaker." A collection of four short plays from the great American writer, "Wilder Times" explores such quintessential themes as the restlessness of the American spirit, the resilience of the common man and the irrepressible joy of youth.

For the record, it's also a homecoming of sorts; Wilder spent some of his childhood in Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High School, where he once had a play performed at school assembly.

Barbara Oliver directs these one-acts with great finesse at the Aurora Theatre Company, where it will run through Dec. 9. While the first two of these pieces are charmers, they are relatively lighthearted, shot through with the homespun observations that make Wilder seem like a souvenir from a bygone era.

In "Infancy," (1962) two babies (Brian Trybom and Patrick Russell) have great insights into the world, while adults behave like children. In "Childhood," (1962) three siblings disenchanted with their parents pretend they are orphans. The ensemble, which includes notable actors Stacy Ross, Soren Oliver and Heather Gordon, leapfrog from one role to another with wit and agility, which highlights Wilder's embrace of unconventional techniques.

Childhood.jpgBrian Trybom (left) welcomes Marcia Pizzo, Heather Gordon, Patrick Russell and Stacy Ross aboard the bus in Thornton Wilder's "Childhood."
Photo: Jessica Palopoli / SF

Scenery is almost unnecessary, and props minimal. The focus is on the text, the way words alone can transport us and move us.

Since his plays are so steeped in quaintness and Americana, it's easy to forget that Pulitzer winner bravely experimented with the boundaries of the form. His ambitions shine through in "The Happy Journey," (1931) in which the stage manager launches a family on a trip to see a relative. The car stops for a funeral procession and a snack before reaching its destination. The children (Gordon and Russell) joke and tease, the redoubtable mother (Ross) gets offended, and everyone makes up.

Long Christmas Dinner.jpgA family (Marcia Pizzo, left, Brian Trybom, Stacy Ross, Patrick Russell, half-hidden up right, and Heather Gordon) gather to celebrate in Thornton Wilder's "The Long Christmas Dinner"in Aurora Theatre's "Wilder Times" Photo: Jessica Palopoli / SF

Under the veneer of the mundane, Wilder suggests the tragedies that shake a family to its core. They are on their way to visit a daughter (a nuanced turn by Marcia Pizzo) who has just lost a baby. Their older son was recently killed in the war. But it's clear that there is no stopping the Kirby family, that no matter what fate sends their way, they will endure.
It's in the centerpiece of the evening, "The Long Christmas Dinner," (1931) that the playwright's shattering insights into the human condition can be most keenly heard. As in "Our Town," Wilder can condense the triumphs and travails of a lifetime into a few short minutes.

Ninety years rush past for the Bayard family as the whirligig of time brings in its revenges. The new house becomes the old family manse. A schoolboy bounds into the room one minute. The next, he's a frail old man.

With his signature economy of dialogue and stage directions, the playwright summons up the life cycle in a few sage observations in between the turkey and the stuffing. Capturing both the idiosyncratic nature of personality and the universality of aging, Wilder sees the truths of existence with heartbreaking clarity.

Oliver's crisp direction and the nimbleness of the cast beautifully frame "The Long Christmas Dinner." The always illuminating Ross morphs from a dying old woman in one scene to a bright-eyed little girl in the next. The nurse brings in babies through one door while the elderly wander beyond our ken through another. Every entrance and exit indicates the end of an era.

In this deeply stirring piece, we see the impermanence of life thrust up against the monotony of routine. The quandary of our little lives is at the center of all of Wilder's plays. That's what make his pieces timeless, even in our future-obsessed society. Even his short pieces ache with the epic struggles of being alive.

As he put it, his work "is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."

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