Sunday, October 5, 2003

'Our Town' opens season of classic masterpieces

By Mike Hughes
Gannett News Service

In a quiet moment in a quiet show, Paul Newman's Our Town character chats with the audience.

"There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being," he says.

Certainly, everything about this film, which airs on Masterpiece Theatre at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 48 and 16 seems eternal. That includes:

• Masterpiece Theatre itself, which is starting its 33rd season. Our Town launches a season stuffed with remakes of the classics. Others include Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Oct. 19), Doctor Zhivago (Nov. 2 and 9) and the second half of The Forsythe Saga (in February).

•  Newman, who is an eternal part of Hollywood. At 78, he's been making movies for 49 years. He's gone from the smoldering sex symbols of Hud and The Long Hot Summer to the folksy guy explaining small-town life in Our Town.

• And the play itself. It seems like a time capsule of real life and real people from a century ago.

"It sprang from a deep admiration for those little white towns in the hills," Thornton Wilder wrote when Our Town premiered as a play in 1938.

Wilder's own roots were more urbane.

His ancestors were merchants and ministers. He grew up in Madison, Wis., in China (where his dad had a diplomatic job) and in California. He earned degrees from Princeton and Yale, then taught poetry at Harvard.

Yet small towns fascinated this Ivy Leaguer. At a writers' retreat in New Hampshire, he wrote a play viewing life in the fictional Grover's Corners in 1901.

Some people loved Our Town. It topped Of Mice and Men, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. "No play ever moved me so deeply," wrote critic Alexander Woollcott.

Others weren't so sure. "Wilder has done nothing new, yet it seemed new," New York Times critic Howard Taubman later wrote. "The truth, of course, was that Our Town, despite its charm and honesty, was perilously close to banality."

And most people have praised it. Our Town is considered a classic piece of Americana and a showpiece for veteran actors.

Joanne Woodward staged it at a playhouse in Connecticut where she's artistic director. Newman, her husband, starred.

That's the version that was taped as a co-production with Showtime and Masterpiece Theatre. It has familiar actors (Jane Curtin, Jayne Atkinson, Frank Converse, Jeffrey DeMunn) in support, with newcomers Maggie Lacey and Ben Fox as the young lovers.

Our Town aired on Showtime last spring and had a brief Broadway run. Now PBS has its turn.

"This is the first time Paul Newman has been on public television," says Rebecca Eaton, the Masterpiece Theatre producer, "and the first time he's been on television in maybe 30 years."

This year, the two shows she produces will occasionally break from their British traditions. Masterpiece has Our Town; and Mystery! has two Tony Hillerman tales - A Thief of Time in November and Coyote Waits next spring.

The latter two are produced by Robert Redford, making this an unusual year for Eaton.

"We're going to be in business with both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," she says of Newman and Redford. "(It's) an enviable position."

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