If Thornton Wilder's full-length dramatic masterpieces are his symphonies, then his short plays are his sublime chamber pieces. And as the four that opened last night at Center Stage prove, short did not mean slight for Wilder.
He was a writer capable of expressing major themes in miniature formats. "Pullman Car Hiawatha," "The Long Christmas Dinner," "The Wreck on the Five-Twenty-Five" and "Now the Servant's Name was Malchus" explore such broad issues as man's place in the universe and the fleeting nature of life.
Exquisitely directed by Tim Vasen, these four pieces span four decades of Wilder's career. Although the plays themselves may be unfamiliar, the bold techniques Wilder introduced in them will not. Using a nearly bare stage, incorporating a stage manager into the cast of characters, and spanning vast stretches of time and space are devices Wilder honed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth."
Yet it is a tribute to these short plays and this splendid production that nearly a half-century after the most recent of Center Stage's foursome, Wilder's methods still look daringly fresh.
Consider the large-cast "Pullman Car Hiawatha" (1931), set aboard a Chicago-bound train. Like "Our Town," it is narrated by a Stage Manager. Amiably played by Richmond Hoxie, the Stage Manager introduces not only the people on the train (and portrays a few himself), but also the places the train passes (a couple of small towns and even a field are portrayed by actors) as well as the passing hours and the planets (also portrayed by actors, in the latter case toting beach-ball sized representations of Venus, Jupiter, etc.).
Although various characters quote poets and philosophers, it is the fate of a well-to-do ailing housewife named Harriet (affectingly depicted by Angela Reed) that lends the play genuine depth. Accompanied by two business-suited angels, only Harriet is able to see and appreciate life as it is - though her understanding comes too late.
In the end, after the Pullman porter has said the play's final line, the actors freeze. Beautifully silhouetted by designer Mark McCullough's striking lighting, they momentarily achieve what Wilder's play so poignantly reminds us we never can - they stop time.
It is "The Long Christmas Dinner" (1931), however, in which Wilder most fully integrates the emotional and intellectual responses that his finest playwriting simultaneously evokes. An account of one family's Christmas dinners spanning 90 years, this one is a heartbreaker.
There's nothing maudlin about it, however. Instead, Wilder presents the action with unshirking bluntness. A mid-19th century family sits down to dinner, only to be fluidly replaced by generation after generation. Births are represented by a nurse wheeling baby carriages through a doorway at one side of the stage; deaths are depicted by having the dying exit through a doorway on the other.
Casting the same actors who portray the play's original 1850 couple (Claire Lautier and Tony Ward) as their own grandchildren and namesakes, Vasen emphasizes, once again, the relentlessness of time.
The darkest of the four plays is the most conventional; "The Wreck on the Five-Twenty-Five" (1956) was intended to represent "sloth" in a proposed series based on "The Seven Deadly Sins." Despite its traditional structure, Wilder's portrait of a deeply discontented suburban husband is intriguingly layered.
The husband, Herbert Hawkins, is convinced the grass is greener in the next town and the next house. Looking through the windows of the train on his daily commute, he has become obsessed with watching others, just as we, of course, are watching him.
In another fine portrayal, Hoxie shows us a man torn between a reputation for being carefree and content and an underlying brooding streak. As his unsuspecting wife and daughter, Kristin Griffith and Danielle Ferland deliver the evening's only strained performances, trying too hard to be the cheerful anchors for an increasingly cheerless man.
Center Stage's production begins with the earliest and shortest play, "Malchus" (1928). Part of a collection of "Three-Minute Plays for Three Persons" that Wilder began writing as a teen-ager, the irreverent but not disrespectful playlet features a minor New Testament figure who wishes to have the character of "Our Lord" remove him from the Scriptures. In a delightfully appropriate bit of casting, Malchus, whose ear was severed, is played by Willy Conley, a deaf actor.
Among the props in this scene are two of the beach-ball planets from "Pullman Car Hiawatha." Using the same props in more than one play is one way Vasen and set designer Walt Spangler reinforce another of Wilder's themes - interconnectedness. To similar effect, cast members from all the one-acts mill about and move the sparse scenery between plays.
Short in length, long in meaning and prescient in stagecraft, these brief works are as eye-opening as they are thought-provoking.
Wilder felt time moved too quickly for us to get the most out of life, and it is indicative of the effectiveness of this production that one viewing seems insufficient to do it justice.
Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, and 1 p.m. Jan. 17 and Feb. 14. Through Feb. 18