Two by Thornton Wilder at the Connelly


By Jerry Tallmer

A young woman, a young wife, is dying, has died. Soon, soon, she will be out of touch, carried away, but now for a moment she turns and says:

“Do let me stop a minute. I want to say good-bye . . . Good-bye, Philip. I begged him not to marry me, but he would . . . I just hoped . . .

“Good-bye, One-three-one-two Ridgewood Avenue, Oakesbury. I hope I remember all its steps and doors and wallpapers for ever. Good-bye, Emerson Grammar School on the corner of Forbush Avenue and Wherry Street. Good-bye. Miss Walker and Miss Cramer who taught me English, and Miss Mathewson who taught me biology.

“Good-bye First Congregational Church on the corner of Meyerson Avenue and South Street, and Dr. McReady and Mrs. McReady and Julia. Good-bye, papa and mama —”

But I am on the verge of tears, even as I copy this into the computer, and it isn’t even Emily Webb we’re listening to, and Emily’s husband wasn’t a Philip, he was George Gibbs, and this isn’t “Our Town,” however much as it is of the future fabric of “Our Town.”

The young woman above is Harriet Milbury, whose death (heart attack) has occurred during a train trip from New York to Chicago on the night of December 21, 1930, and she’s speaking to us from a compartment in “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” one of three one-act plays written by Thornton Wilder in 1931 that a gifted playwright seven decades later, John Guare, will term “the workshops, the laboratories, for ‘Our Town’ and ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ ”

They were indeed, and if you doubt it, stop in at the Keen Company’s double-bill of “Pullman Car Hiawatha” and “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” anytime through July 19 at the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street.

There is, in “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” just as in “Our Town,” a deus-ex-machina Stage Manager summoning forth all concerned — a whole range of humanity from fussbudget to stoic to workaday to nuts, plus a parade of The Hours as philosophers (Ten O’Clock/Plato, Eleven O’Clock /Epictetus, Twelve O’Clock/Saint Augustine), plus young bride Harriett yanked off into eternity.

There is even a hamlet through which the Chicago-bound train passes in the night, Grovers Comers, Ohio, with an “m,” just like that — “eight hundred and twenty-one souls” who will eight short years later find themselves transferred to Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, 2,642 souls plus the twins that Doc Gibbs, Emily’s father, brought into the world in Polish town on that early morning of May 7, 1901.

“The Happy Journey to Trenton and Äamden” is a sort of running snapshot of a family outing by automobile — Elmer Kirby, Ma Kirby, two kids — off on a weekend visit to a married older daughter. It too is graced with a Stage Manager who on occasion assumes one or another neighborly role.

Set-less, scenery-less, prop-less except for a vehicle made of chairs, “The Happy Journey” is really a foolproof work, and if I close my eyes I can still summon up tidal memory of the clean, pluperfect senior-class production that swept this playgoer under the spell of Thornton Wilder as far back as 9th or 10th grade in high school. “Our Town,” in college — the Dartmouth Players, directed by Warner Bentley — sealed the deal.

“The Happy Journey” itself contains a death — of a stillborn infant — and, before that, when Mr. Kirby stops the car to let a funeral go by, Ma Kirby’s words, “Well, I guess we’ll all hold up the traffic for a few minutes some day,” will surely, like much else by Wilder, echo down the ages.

The mission of the four-year-old Keen Company, says artistic associate Henry Wishcamper, is “to do sincere plays,” and it is 32-year-old Wishcamper who has directed the “Pullman Car Hiawatha” half of the bill. “The Happy Journey” is staged by Keen artistic director Carl Forsman, whose accomplishment in the recent past includes a beautiful. faithful revival of John van Druten’s “The Voice of the Turtle.”

Forsman and Wishcamper had been talking for some time about wanting to do Wilder, and that playwright’s “The Long Christmas Dinner” — the third of those 1931 “laboratories” — received a Keen Company “Chestnut Series” reading last season.

“Carl and I felt that none of Wilder’s three full-length plays” — “Our Town,” “The Skin of Our Teeth,” and “The Matchmaker” — “were right for us. They’re so big and require so much time and so much resource,” meaning people.

As it is, “Pullman Car Hiawatha” contains 28 characters, played at the Connelly by 24 actors, with Jonathan Hogan as the Stage Manager in both works. (Other leading roles are in the hands of Jimonn Cole, Teddy Coluca, Maria Dizzia, Ann Dowd, Brian Hutchison, Susan Pellerino, Christa Scott Reed, Jocelyn Rose, David Standish, and Michael Warner.)

“We decided to put ‘Pullman Car’ first [in the evening]. It’s so big and so small simultaneously. I have been surprised,” says skinny, dedicated Yale graduate Wishcamper, whose wife Jenny Mannis is the show’s costume designer — “surprised how different it is to do Wilder.

“Rather than unlocking problems, with a play like this it’s filling in the story. It [the play] does not like when you add ideas to it, but when you’re just filling in the story, it’s an amazing vessel. In this case, it’s mainly Harriett’s story — but each one of the 28 characters has a story, and it’s amazing how rich each of those stories is.”

In short, less is more. The person who invented that phrase was no doubt thinking of Thornton Wilder.