NEW YORK, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- Paul Newman has returned to Broadway after a 38-year absence in Hollywood to play the avuncular narrator in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," the classic American play about the eternal truths of life and death in an archetypal New England village at the turn of the last century.
Newman, who will be 78 next month, was last seen on the Broadway stage in 1964 in "Baby Want a Kiss." The production of "Our Town" comes directly from the Westport (Conn.) Country Playhouse where Newman's wife, actress Joanne Woodward, is artistic director.
It is scheduled for a limited run of only nine weeks.
It was Newman's idea to bring "Our Town" to Broadway, not Woodward's. The show recouped its $1 million investment before it even opened at the Booth Theater.
"I decided I would not go to my grave without coming back to Broadway," Newman, a halo of white hair framing his still handsome face, said in an interview. "There is no other reason, except that 'Our Town' reflects the best of American values, and I thought it appropriate for these times."
The veteran film star and all-American idol said his appearance in the narrator role of Stage Manager could mark his final stage performance, but he's avoiding retirement announcements because "I've already gone back on a few."
He might make more movies (he has 51 to his credit), and he intends to keep on racing cars and manufacturing spaghetti sauce.
As Stage Manager he keeps an eye on the residents of fictional Grover's Corners, N.H., from 1901 to 1913, commenting on their activities and telling what the future holds for them. He focuses particularly on two neighboring families -- the Gibbs and the Webbs -- and the marriage of George Gibbs to Emily Webb and Emily's premature death in childbirth.
It is not a showy role, and Newman -- in his wisdom as an actor -- doesn't try to make it so. Since the Stage Manager lacks emotional breadth, the actor plays it laid-back and thoughtful, looking out at the audience through wire-rimmed glasses as he opines that life should be approached consciously because every moment is precious.
If there is such a thing as a perfectly satisfying performance, Newman is giving it.
"The play questions what we do with our time," Newman points out. "How we use it. The things that we ought to be looking at, and that we forget to look at. How gloriously special getting through the day ought to be."
James Naughton, a Westport neighbor of the Newmans and an eminent actor in his own right, has directed the play at an almost leisurely pace to reflect the glacial movement of time and events in Grover's Corners. Tony Walton's set design follows the playwright's directions that the play, which premiered in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize, be performed on a bare stage with few pieces of furniture, and his costumes are period perfect.
Some of the acting is understated, in line with Newman's aw-shucks, cracker barrel approach to his material, but some of it is florid and even self-conscious.
Ben Fox finds a happy medium in his characterization of George, who gives up ideas of college to run his uncle's farm and marry Emily, who is played with dewy charm by Maggie Lacey. Jane Curtin as Emily's excitable mother tends to overact but provides the foil to George's mother, played stolidly but with considerable depth and sharpness of observation by Jayne Atkinson.
Jeffrey DeMunn as publisher of the town newspaper and Frank Converse as the overworked town doctor, bring a realism to their roles that help anchor the play. But Stephen Spinella, who won a Tony Award for his acting in "Angels in America," gives a weird accounting of the alcoholic Congregational Church organist, although his pantomime playing of the instrument is fascinating to watch.
Others who shine in minor roles are Jake Robards as a friendly milkman, T.J. Sullivan in his Broadway debut as a paper deliverer, Kristen Hahn as George's irrepressible sister, and John Braden as a professor.
"Our Town" is a play that might have been written for the Christmas holiday season.
This production is its first revival on Broadway since 1988, but it is bound to be revived again and again because it has a poignant message that touches both the heart and the mind, best expressed by the organist: "Now you know. That's what it's like to be alive. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years..."