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South Florida gets its own version of Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town'

The ol’ chestnut “Our Town” is being re-envisioned to better resonate with South Florida’s multicultural audiences.

Thornton Wilder’s classic drama about life, love and death in small-town America will be performed by the Miami New Drama (MiND) company at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre Oct. 26-Nov. 19. This is the first time the Wilder estate has allowed the text of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, first staged in 1938, to be changed. Not only is the cast multiracial, but parts of the script are delivered in Creole and Spanish.

“ ‘Our Town’ needed to look and feel like Miami and South Florida,” explains Michel Hausmann, artistic director of MiND. “That means it needs to be multicultural, multiracial and multilingual. I wanted to have a direct conversation with our community … which is unlike any other place in America.”

That meant getting permission from the Wilder estate to tinker with the script.

“So I called them,” Hausmann says. “I said, ‘I have this idea you might hate. I want the Gibbs family in the show to speak Creole and the Webbs to speak Spanish.’ I was ready for them to say, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’ But instead, they got excited.”

Hausmann says MiND wanted to be part of the national conversation.

“It’s not a good time to be an immigrant,” he says. “Here in South Florida, this is a region of immigrants. And Miami is the most immigrant city in America, and therefore I think it’s the most American city. That’s why we had to have a cast that looked like Miami. There had to be multiracial casting. When I talked to Tappy Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s nephew, he spoke about the universality of ‘Our Town.’ It’s practically done every single day of the year somewhere in the world.”

For this production, about 80 percent of the play will be in English. “And the parts that are not in English are subtitled,” Hausmann adds. “The people who don’t know ‘Our Town’ will just assume that it was written that way.”

“Our Town” is centered on small-town life in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, N.H. The show was revolutionary when it first debuted, eschewing scenery and props because Wilder thought that theater had become “evasive,” with the audience being distracted from a play’s ideas by the scenery and artificiality of staging. The central character is the narrator, who frequently breaks the fourth wall to directly address the audience and occasionally steps into the narrative to play small parts. Because of its bare set and mimed props, the show is economical to stage and has become a favorite of high school and community theaters.

“The good thing about being an immigrant myself is that I didn’t have to read ‘Our Town’ in high school,” says Hausmann, who is originally from Venezuela. “I read it later in life, in my 20s and 30s, and I kind of fell in love with it. It’s like a human achievement. It’s the most ambitious play I know. It’s about a guy trying to tell the story of life. It’s about the human experience here on Earth. The play is really big and ambitious. High schools do it and only get to one level, but it’s a very big, complex play. I believe the play is incredibly powerful when done right.”

MiND, which started in Miami in 2016 with a critically acclaimed production of “The Golem of Havana,” staged the American premiere of the courtroom drama “Terror” earlier this year. In that play, which was directed by the Lincoln Center’s Gregory Mosher, the audience served as jurors and decided the fate of the protagonist. This past spring, MiND produced “A Special Day,” a play about fascism in Italy, and staged the musical “Piaf” over the summer. MiND, founded by Hausmann and Moises Kaufman, now manages the Colony Theatre.

“Our Town” runs Oct. 26-Nov. 19 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, in Miami Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with matinees 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $45-$65 ($100 opening night Oct. 26). To order, call 800-211-1414 or go to ColonyMB.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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