An artist's rendering of the set of the Baltimore Center Stage production of "Our Town"

A close-knit town where everyone knows everyone else and their business. A place where the locals sometimes are born, live and die within a few miles’ radius. A place of which outsiders have a withering, reductive view without having ever been there, and which the natives sometimes don’t realize the preciousness of until they leave, forever yearning for home.

It might not seem obvious, but that’s a perfect description both of Baltimore, our big, loud, diverse, problematic city, and Grover’s Corners, the fictional tiny homogenous New Hampshire enclave of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Our Town.” Reading an 84-year-old play set in a very white place between 1901 and 1913 and imagining bold, Black, modern Baltimore within its pages takes a very specific vision.

And that’s where Baltimore Center Stage comes in.

“It is so Baltimore,” said Stevie Walker-Webb, director of the new production, which begins this week. The correlation between the two towns, he said, is not only in the spirit of the piece, but in the local version, in its set pieces and the involvement of an overwhelmingly local cast and crew. And he didn’t change one word.

“People feel they are growing up in a Grover’s Corners because it’s small and dusty with nothing to do, where there is a national stigma and stain that the place doesn’t have any value,” added the director, who was raised in Waco, Texas, which he says is “my own Grover’s Corners. There’s something powerful about that.”

Many people who first encountered “Our Town” in their youth may remember it as simply being about the quaint connection between wide-eyed youngsters George and Emily, and about living and dying in a small town where nothing changes. But Walker-Webb and Center Stage’s artistic director Stephanie Ybarra believe the beauty of the piece is in details that the average high school reader might not get. Ybarra herself admits that she sure didn’t.

“I was like ‘What did we just read?’ My first response was to hate it,” she recalled of the first time she read the play as a student. “The meaning has changed.”

I felt the same way, having first discovered “Our Town” in high school, not onstage but in a third-season episode of the 1980s family sitcom, “Growing Pains.” Young Mike Seaver, played by Kirk Cameron, is cast as George in his high school production, and I just remember deciding it was a typical fuddy-duddy classic that had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t until decades later, as an adult now well-versed in grief and regret, that I recognized the pain and depth woven into Wilder’s words, and the tragedy of not realizing the worth of a life until it’s over.

“People treat it like a dusty old tale rather than something that relates to us,” said Walker-Webb, who immediately after “Our Town” makes his Broadway directorial debut with “Ain’t No Mo,” created by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels.

So, what makes it Baltimore? “I think, obviously, that it’s the community aspect,” said actor Chania Hudson, who plays Rebecca, George’s younger sister. (Cool aside: Her name is pronounced “Shania,” and yes, she was named after Miss Twain.) “Baltimore has Baltimore, you know? It’s our town. We take care of each other, peel beans together, walk kids home from school. It takes a village, and those are all the parts of Baltimore that get ignored or stereotyped or overshadowed.”

“We want to know this place and get under the hood of it, to know where the heart of it actually lives in the details,” Ybarra said. “And it is an invitation to pay attention, a reminder that we are connected, not in the capacity of living and dying on Earth, but to take advantage of each and every day, and to take every moment of awareness around us. It’s very Smalltimore. There’s the element of our culture where everyone is in everyone else’s business. It feels very resonate.”

Walker-Webb’s aim was to reestablish Wilder’s work as not a hoary chestnut of yesteryear, but as a “groundbreaking” piece “of joyful absurd meditation of being present,” he explained. “It’s kind of impossible to work on this play and read these words without being forced into a hyper-present awareness,” Walker-Webb said. “What I’ve been doing directionally is injecting the play with the absurdism that existed at the time that Wilder wrote it. It broke all convention. I’m trying to reestablish the essence of that play.”

“We think about the great American cities, cultural destination. After being in Baltimore, I thought ‘Oh, my God, what a hidden treasure!’” Walker-Webb said. “People need to be made aware of it.”

In a way, that’s what “Our Town” is about, the recognition of the deeper context of a thing you’ve overlooked. “What Stevie has done is give more nuance and shape to it,” Ybarra said. “That’s the meaning of what theater is, what it can be, to be inspired by our home city.”

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