"In my plays," Thornton Wilder said, "I attempted to raise ordinary daily conversation between ordinary people to the level of the universal human experience." Most famously, Wilder achieved this goal through the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Our Town."
Now, through Dec. 9 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theater, in "Wilder Times," audiences have the opportunity to see how Wilder was also the master of the dramatic short form, creating one-act plays that elevate the apparently ordinary to make deeply moving observations about the human condition that apply to us all.
But there is little heaviness here. In fact, there’s plenty of comedy. Wilder’s touch is so light, his craft so remarkable and the events he shows so very ordinary, that emotions sneak up and take you by surprise.
To be fair, the Aurora does an absolutely stellar job of staging this quartet of short plays. And director Barbara Oliver has selected the offerings well.
Though the pieces were not all written by Wilder to be staged together, they form a logical and compelling sequence. Each one-act piece packs a subtle punch. Taken together they build a resonant dramatic arc.
The evening begins with "Infancy," first produced in 1962. Arriving in Central Park with her charge Baby Tommy in an over-sized baby carriage, Nursemaid Miss Wilchik (played with exquisite exaggeration by Heather Gordon) hopes to encounter Officer Avonzino (Soren Oliver), the local beat cop. She’s soon joined by Mrs. Boker (Stacy Ross) who’s taking baby son Moe out for some air.
While the adults talk, two heads rear up out of the carriages and the babies (Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom) proceed to discuss the challenges of baby life. While grown men in baby bonnets might seem something of a comedic cliché, "Infancy" cleverly exploits this device to create the most laugh-out-loud moments of the night. It also packs some clever observations about the immaturity of adults and the frustrations of communication at every stage of life.
"Childhood" comes next. While there’s still some comedy here, the material becomes a little darker when a group of siblings pretend to be orphans and their game transforms into an unsettling but riveting dream journey on a bus.
Mother (Stacy Ross) becomes a veiled mourner in the back and the driver bears a remarkable similarity to the children’s father (Brian Tybom). The children, played with delightful authenticity by Heather Gordon, Marcia Pizzo and Patrick Russell, are desperate for adventure and deeply ambivalent about any sufferings of their parents, but eventually allow the driver to turn back to the security of home.
Following intermission comes "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden," first produced in 1931. Two parents drive with their young son and daughter to visit their married daughter. The central character here is the mother (played with splendidly composed conviction by Ross).
Despite her apparent deference to her husband, she’s the plain-spoken lynchpin of the family. "There’s nothin’ like bein’ liked by your family," she says with characteristic understatement. The audience is left to feel the oceans of emotion that lie beneath.
The final play of this quartet is "The Long Christmas Dinner." Also first produced in 1931, it’s the most famous of Wilder’s short plays. Here, he takes us through a swift 90 years of family history at the same holiday table. Babies are born, people pass on (exiting stage left), and others leave to live elsewhere. Unaware, people repeat phrases used by deceased relatives, and family members are forgotten like the Native Americans who inhabited the place before them.
Offering an unsettling and yet somehow reassuring notion of the fleeting nature of life, "The Long Christmas Dinner" was among Wilder’s most influential works, inspiring writers that include Orson Welles (who borrowed the device for "Citizen Kane"), A.R. Gurney in "The Dining Room" (1981) and Dan LeFranc in "The Big Meal" (2011).
Throughout the evening, all the players move with grace between their roles. Performances are consistently fresh and persuasive. Wilder’s comedic touches are given full shrift but not over-exploited. The heavier moments have impact, but are never overdone.
Staged in the way Wilder intended -- with a minimalist set and the audience on three sides -- Aurora’s production mirrors the deceptive simplicity of the dramas themselves. The earth-toned costuming (designed by Maggi Yule) echoes the sparseness.
The transitions from each play are punctuated beautifully by the singing of the actors as they reorganize the set. Their a cappella renditions of classics like "Row, row, row your boat," evoke a wistful nostalgia not just for Wilder’s less complicated era, but also for our own bygone days.