Everyone thinks they know Our Town. The play has become code for cloying sentimentality, the sort of white-bread drama trotted out regularly by high-school theater departments. If people remember any details past adolescence, it's generally the scene of teenage sweethearts perched on ladders.

But if you pay attention to Thornton Wilder's 1938 play, it's not at all saccharine or straightforward. Tonally, it's devastating. Wilder tells you how people die as soon as he introduces them. There's a drunk no one has the courage to help. The final scene, set in a cemetery, has been described as a seance with the dead. Stylistically, Wilder broke all sorts of rules: He stripped the set of scenery and broke the fourth wall by having characters address the audience directly. Early performances confused and even disgusted audiences. "Speech-making by 'corpses' unusual feature," wrote the Associated Press. The New Yorker ran a cartoon of three women at a ticket booth, with one asking, "Does this play have scenery?"

Today, 75 years after its Broadway premiere, the mention of Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is more likely to prompt eye-rolling than dropped jaws. But that hasn't stopped three Portland directors from opening their own versions this month: college productions at Reed and Portland State, and a presentation by the avant-garde Liminal Performance Group. The three directors sat down to discuss what drew them to Our Town, why the play persists and how they're updating it with closed-circuit video, gender-bent casting and Oreos. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

WW: Why did you choose Our Town?

John Berendzen, Liminal: Liminal has always done installation art and performed plays in different ways, but I was telling a collaborator that I just wanted to direct a straight play. And he said, "Ha, why don't you do Our Town?" It was like a dare, as the most normal play you could do. And I read it and realized it's not really normal. It's extremely experimental and totally has the modernist agenda.

Kate Bredeson, Reed: We are opening our new performing arts building at Reed, and I wanted to pick something big and iconic and classic and, I thought, straightforward. Lies! It's totally lies. 


What are other misconceptions?

Lorraine Bahr, Portland State: Everyone thinks of this quaint little stereotype. 

Bredeson: When I told the students, they were stunned. They were like, really? They rolled their eyes. It has this completely saccharine reputation as being this little high-school love story, when in fact I think it's one of the darkest plays ever written. It just rips your guts out. I'm confused and stunned as to how it's become a high-school staple when it's so morose. 

Bahr: I think it has a reputation as being sentimental because on its face there's no cynicism. But it's still hard-hitting. My sense is that Wilder feels it's possible to be a realist without being a cynic. The fact is, everybody dies of something. There's just no avoiding it.

Bredeson: I feel like it's a manifesto. I feel like this play is Wilder saying, "Wake up. All of you out there watching this play, wake up. There is never another day like today. Every day you eat your breakfast. Every day you sit down and have a conversation, and that is a gift. And none of us realize it, and it's time to start realizing it." Life is so full, and we get so swept up that we never stop to revel in the moment of meeting or in the moment of communion. Every day is holy, and I feel so strongly about that with this show.

Bahr: I am so taken with Wilder's perspective that all those moments—those moments of "I love you" or "I miss you"—are so unique for everyone, but they happen billions and billions and billions of times. Wilder had grown tired of the theater at the time because it was so consumed with making it so specific and tying it to time and place, and he wanted to connect it to the universal.

How are you updating it for 2013?

Berendzen: We're doing some closed-circuit video, particularly for the flashback sequence in the cemetery. We wanted the dead people to be the real flesh-and-bones people, but the live people to be phantoms.  

Bredeson: For us, we're trying help people see anew things they think they know. George is played by a woman. Mrs. Gibbs is played by a man. Rebecca is played by a man. Our stage manager is a woman. That's one way, on the level of casting. Another way was instead of shelling beans, they're taking apart Oreos. I'm not sure we'll keep that. 

Berendzen: We're starting with the work lights on, and it's just card tables and folding chairs. The first thought people should have when they come in is, "Maybe I should ask for my money back now." But by the end of the first act, it's this sumptuous beautiful feast, so we're trying to push both ends as far as we can. 

Tell me about the music in your productions.

Berendzen: Actors are playing instruments and singing, and we're doing all the hymns with banjo and fiddle. We end Act 3 with an experimental musician, Jesse Mejia, doing an electronic soundscape. So we're moving from a kind of traditional style and breaking off into a more modern sound. 

Bredeson: All of our music is tambourines. The whole wedding is tambourines. It sounds like a dirge. It sounds like they're going off to get shot, which is sort of how I see the wedding. The tambourines were a joke in rehearsal, like the Oreos, that's now in the show. 

Why are people still performing this play?

Bredeson: An old college professor said to me, "You can do this play with just chairs on a stage. You don't need anything." The thing that's so surprising about this play is that the text is foolproof. It's structurally flawless.

Bahr: There's not a wasted word. 

Berendzen:  That's the problem we had, that it's so good. How do we get around that? Our answer has been to create breaks and openings in the text, pauses and very brief sequences that break out of text and help remind people that it's not just a string of words, that there's a present moment that's existing behind the text as well. That's been a big challenge, how to deal with this great text. I didn't want to trash it. I didn't want to go totally David Lynch with it.

Bredeson: There are a lot of what I've been calling wink-wink moments—those comments like, "Everyone's meant to live two by two." I think the whole play is commenting on perceived social conventions. I have a long-running argument with a scholar friend that this is a crazy avant-garde play that can withstand any layering. I don't actually think it's about a white town in New Hampshire in 1901. The older you get, the more devastating it is. For me, at base level, the play is about the fact that we could all be dead in four hours. We could all be dead right now.

SEE IT: Reed College's production of Our Town opens this weekend at the Performing Arts Building, SE 28th Avenue and Botsford Drive, 777-7284. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays through Nov. 16. $3-$7. Look for information about PSU's and Liminal's productions in next week's paper.