When actor Wil Love first visited the fictitious burg of Grover's Corners, the town showed him what he was good at. Now, playwright Thornton Wilder's make-believe small town is teaching him how to gradually let go.
In a career spanning more than four decades, Love, now 67, has played more than 250 roles. But his first part was in a Wichita, Kan., high school staging of Wilder's classic piece of Americana, "Our Town," in 1959.
"Like your first love, you never forget your first production," Love says. "I was chunky, and because my birthday is in late December, I was almost a year younger than some of my classmates. I was OK socially, but I had no self-confidence.
"Then, this very pretty girl that I had a crush on urged me to join the dramatics club. I took to the stage right away. I had a big voice, and I could easily fill a 2,400-seat auditorium without amplification. When I was on stage, for the first time, I was in control. I was amazed at the acceptance theater brought me in this huge high school. It was the catalyst that set me on my career."
Love had to wait 51 years before he could play the part again. But starting Wednesday, he will reprise the role of the Stage Manager at Everyman Theatre, as part of a cast that includes students from the Baltimore School for the Arts.
"For all these years, I've always wanted to be in another production of 'Our Town,' " Love says. "But for one reason or another, it didn't work out."
Well, he's been busy.
In 1970, Love moved to Baltimore to be part of what then was the acting ensemble at Center Stage. The next year, he and his partner, the actor and director Carl Schurr, began to perform at Totem Pole Playhouse, the summer stock theater just west of Gettysburg, Pa., formerly associated with actress Jean Stapleton of "All in the Family" fame. Between 1984 and 2008, Love and Schurr ran the place.
Summer stock is known for setting a brutal pace. "For more than 25 years, we opened six plays every summer in just 12 weeks," Love says. "Doing all those plays challenges actors in their 20s. It was time to pass on the baton."
Not that Love is retiring, exactly; since 2007, he and Schurr have been part of Everyman's ensemble. And when the troupe announced plans to stage "Our Town," he jumped at the chance to explore how the play would resonate after five decades.
" 'Our Town' seems so light and sunny at first," he says. "But then, we get to the third act. I had no conception of eternity at age 16. Now, I'm getting to the point where I realize that I'm not going to live forever."
For such a revered, G-rated piece of theater, a play set in 1901 and first performed in 1938, "Our Town" can seem surprisingly hip. A production that opened off-Broadway on Feb. 26, 2009, has received critical raves and, more than a year later, continues to play to full houses.
Demand for the local version also is brisk. Three-quarters of the tickets available for Everyman's monthlong run have been sold, and pre-sales are among the highest in the theater's 29-year history. That's not bad for a show that traditionally is performed on a bare stage and without props.
"It's still a timeless piece," says Donald Hicken, director and head of the theater department at the School for the Arts.
" 'Our Town' says pretty much everything that needs to be said about the human condition, about the importance of one human life when set against the great, long road to eternity."
For all its innocence and charm (which the Everyman production will emphasize by using radio show-style props to create sound effects), "Our Town" never is sentimental.
The famous third act is set in a cemetery and takes place at the funeral for one of the main characters. One man in the play commits suicide, and a young soldier dies in battle. The newcomer is instructed by graveyard residents that the duty of the dead is to detach from the living.
The play's shadows so unsettled Wilder's contemporaries that the 1940 film version starring William Holden and Martha Scott notoriously adds a scene at the end resurrecting the main character, who awakens from a bad dream.
"Thornton Wilder was looking at the life cycle, and that journey sometimes is painful," Hicken says. "But although 'Our Town' has its dark aspects, ultimately the play celebrates simple living, sustainability and savoring the moment. These concerns are relevant today."
Perhaps, Love says, he should see himself in his younger cast members, who are performing in their very first professional production. But the truth is, when he's on stage at Everyman as the Stage Manager, he finds himself focusing on what the play says to him now.
In the 51 years since he first performed the role, his parents have died. Some years ago, Love had his own brush with mortality when he stepped off a curb and narrowly avoided being hit by a bus.