by Richard Dodds
Thornton Wilder was hardly what you would call a family man – no spouse, no children, few close relatives – which makes it ironic how deeply he roots around family affairs in his plays. Ironic, but perhaps also inevitable. Whatever the motivation, his circumstances gave him a perspective that could appreciate the importance of family as well as dyspeptically poke at its more infuriating components.
The four short plays that Aurora Theatre is presenting and that Barbara Oliver has deftly directed illustrate this aspect of the playwright's writings, the exemplar of which is Our Town. And in two of the four plays that share the umbrella title Wilder Times, children and even infants get to commiserate on the state of their worlds dominated by those infuriating creatures known as grownups.
In Infancy, written in the early 1960s, two babies whose perambulators are stationed together in a park by their respective guardians exchange knowledge and vocabulary that the adults only hear as variations on goo-goo. Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom play the amusingly surly tykes fitted into oversized prams, while mother (Stacy Ross) and nanny (Heather Gordon) exchange pleasantries that indicate deep caring tinged with a drop of disdain for their charges. Soren Oliver is a comically muttering Italian-American patrolman who wonders of the unruly children in his park, "Why can't they nuisance at home?"
In the second playlet, Childhood, three siblings are sufficiently grown to cause their mother (Ross) to moan, "Nobody told me children are half-crazy when I first got married." Big sister Caroline (Marcia Pizzo) corrals her little sister and brother (Heather Gordon and Patrick Russell) into playing games like Funeral and Orphans, while their mother wishes they'd play such games as Shopping or Going to School. Wilder digs deeper in this piece, exploring the minds of children as they build up resentments over basic parental activities that get interpreted as neglect. It is capped by a wonderful scene that twists through reality and fantasy as the siblings make their escape aboard a bus with an unusually compliant driver (Trybom).
Childhood also dates from the early 1960s, while the two plays of the second act both debuted in 1931. A chronological regression, but fitting in the production's timeline as children grow progressively older. In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, Wilder makes use of a stage manager character as he would so famously do again in Our Town. But the stage manager isn't essential and fades away as Wilder takes a mundane scenario – a family auto trip – and makes it vital through crisp observation. What is unsaid is as important as what is said, and the words and the spaces between them are served up in loving detail by Ross and Oliver as the parents, and Russell, Gordon, and Pizzo as their offspring.
Wilder Times culminates in the exquisitely written and presented The Long Christmas Dinner, in which the entire cast plays a family evolving through births, deaths, and marriages in a series of scenes set at successive Christmas dinners. This piece presages the life-death cycle that Wilder explored in Our Town, and while the dead don't rise to tell us to better embrace the fleeting moments that make up a life, the message is clear if more melancholy than as evoked in Our Town.
And as with Our Town, rearranged chairs comprise most of the scenic elements. But such is the precision of Wilder's words, and with the finely tuned performances under Oliver's direction, we tumble into the deceptively simple lives being led onstage. Life starts off as a confusing affair and pretty much stays that way despite any respites of confidence. As one baby observes with some frustration to the other in the opening playlet, holding up a hand and spreading digits, "Sometimes they're called fingers, and sometimes they're called piggies."
Wilder Times will run at the Aurora Theatre through Dec. 9. Tickets are $32-$50. Call (510) 843-4822 or go to www.auroratheatre.org.