Cindy De La Cruz grew up in Washington Heights.
Which is funny, because the 25-year-old actor has the lead not in Olney Theatre Center’s smash hit musical “In the Heights,” which closes this weekend, but in its latest production, an older, quieter, more traditional look at life in a small town, Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town.” Staged in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab with a seven-member cast and a supporting ensemble of Aaron Cromie-designed Bunraku puppets, “Our Town” is, like “In The Heights,” a uniquely American story of life, death, love and dreams played out in the shops and on the corners where neighbors gather.
But “Our Town” is different. Set in 1938, it’s a play-within-a-play that Wilder, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote in response to what he felt were the shortcomings of contemporary theater back in the day. It’s metatheatrical—completely aware of its status as a play being performed to an audience—and while its author-prescribed bare-bones production was groundbreaking 80 years ago, “Our Town” is probably best known now as “that play without a set.” That makes it ideal for high schools and community theaters; is there enough there for the pros at Olney?
“Most people think ‘Our Town’ is straightforward, actually,” said De La Cruz, who attended LaGuardia High School — “the ‘Fame’ school” —in New York City. “Coming into the production, I thought that as well. But there’s so much in there that Thornton Wilder gives you. I find myself, every night, hearing a line differently. It’s all so beautiful, so universal.”
And so reflective of what America looks like today. “What (director) Aaron (Posner) did with this play is so wonderful,” she said. “We have a multi-ethnic cast, which is what America looks like—what it’s always looked like.”
The look continues with the puppets, each molded and shaped by Philadelphia puppeteer-designer Cromie to look like the family to which it belongs. De La Cruz said that the broad ethnicity of the cast means the lines land differently on the audience, and the show takes on a shape of its own.
“Our Town” may seem simple at first, she added, but “really, going into it, especially when you only have seven actors and 14 puppets, you have everyone sort of doing double duty.”
Despite the show’s two intermissions, she added, “We’re all onstage for the entire act; there isn’t any down time.”
Which is fine with De La Cruz, who relishes the challenge. She likens Wilder to Shakespeare, or August Wilson: “All the inspiration you need is right there, intact. We didn’t need to dig deep—and Aaron really brought that out of us, that deep raw emotion.
“Just people, talking to each other, so it rings so truthfully,” she said. “That’s why people keep doing ‘Our Town.’ It never goes out of fashion.”
Neither does Jon Hudson Odom, who has returned to Olney to play the omniscient fourth-wall-breaking Stage Manager, a role that has been played by the greatest of the greats, from Orson Welles to William Holden to Hal Holbrook to, well, even Frank Sinatra, who took the part on in a live-television-musical production in 1955.
“I really fell in love with the role of the Stage Manager,” said Odom, who played Mr. Carter in “Our Town” at Ford’s Theatre in 2013. “And the words he was saying, the ideas he was expressing.”
Odom, a Chicago native who went to North Carolina School of the Arts before choosing to be a D.C.-based actor six years ago (“I went from Wheaton, Illinois, to Wheaton, Maryland,” he joked) has performed many times at Olney, appearing in “The Magic Play,” “Hay Fever,” “Colossal” and “The Piano Lesson,” as well as last year’s Olney-Round House collaboration, “Angels in America.”
“I’ve always considered myself a very old soul,” said Odom, who grew up in a large, sports-crazy family, but gravitated toward theater and the arts. “The interesting thing about the Stage Manager is that there’s no other description of him than ‘hat’ and ‘pipe.’ As far as physically or even age-wise, it’s not specific. It goes along with the evolution of America, seeing ourselves in this little town at the turn of the century.”
Odom considers himself a character actor, and in this production of “Our Town,” that means shouldering (sometimes literally) the roles of the townspeople embodied by puppets. That means transforming himself physically and vocally—a skill he honed this summer in “Octoroon” at Woolly Mammoth—and using some of the puppetry acting tools he picked up working with puppets at Imagination Stage.
“It takes the audience a little bit of time to get used to it: there are puppets in the show,” he said. “What eventually engages everyone is that you start to see these very universal qualities in the puppets; there are a lot of moments of recognition.” And moments where the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. For Odom, this production echoes Wilder’s themes, and recreates the sense of surprise that the playwright sought when he wrote the play 80 years ago.
“I think the big thing about ‘Our Town’ is that when it was originally produced it was shocking to many people to have the Stage Manager on the stage, speaking directly to the audience with no props, no set” he said. “That kind of thing isn’t shocking anymore, it happens all the time. Reinventing the wheel of ‘Our Town’ with the puppets is just that idea of making audiences see it in a new way—as they would have back then.”
He said that “walking into a space where the unexpected happens” is a basic truth behind the catharsis that is theater. And the message of “Our Town”—that life is precious and can’t be taken for granted—will never lose its relevance.
“With all these crazy things happening, in a world that can feel daunting, it is nice to be part of a story that reminds you to stop and smell the roses,” he said. “And to really look people in the eyes and take them in—to take in this life because it goes by so quickly.
“Especially right now, that is a very important message.”
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” runs through Nov. 12 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Wednesday, Oct. 25. A sign-interpreted performance starts at 7:45 p.m. Oct. 26. Tickets start at $47, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.