Hal Landon Jr. Returns to the SCR Stage in "Our Town"

 | May 09, 2022
Hal Landon

Hal Landon Jr. didn’t understand why the term “American classic” seemingly came attached to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 masterpiece like it was part of the title. Yes, he thought it was a nice work when he played Professor Willard in SCR’s 1998 production. But it took 21 years and an invitation to play the Stage Manager in SCR’s current production from SCR Artistic Director David Ivers for Landon to understand why Our Town is the iconic work it is.

“When we did the play (in 1998), I didn’t get it. I didn’t get what was so great about this play. I didn’t get it then,” Landon said.

“But after David asked me to do it, I got this copy of the play with a forward by Donald Marguiles. He talked about when he was younger, he didn’t get it either. Then, he saw a production and all of a sudden, it hit him how great it was. This thing Wilder was trying to do with the small everyday things having a universal perspective. The characters, everything about it, all of a sudden, he realizes what was there and he considered it not only a good play, but one of the great plays. … When I re-read it, I got it. Marguiles’ forward really helped me. It really kind of opened up then.”

Landon returns to the SCR stage for the first time in 2 ½ years for Our Town, which runs through June 4 on the Segerstrom Stage. It’s Landon’s first stage appearance since he ended his 40-year run as Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

And it’s fitting he returns for another signature role. Our Town’s Stage Manager is one of the iconic roles in theatre, in the discussion with Hamlet, Richard III, Medea, Lady Macbeth, John Proctor from The Crucible, Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire and even The Emcee from Cabaret, for which it bears comparison in terms of being the glue that keeps everything together.

This is a role played in various productions, revivals and adaptations by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Spalding Gray, Paul Newman, Hal Holbrook, Henry Fonda and Wilder, himself. When it was first produced in 1938, Our Town transformed theatre through the character of the Stage Manager, who broke the fourth wall, addressing the audience and calling attention to the fact the audience is watching a drama.

It’s a role that challenged Landon in ways he never anticipated. After Ivers’ invitation, Landon dived into reading everything Wilder. He read Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, along with several Wilder plays, including The Skin of Our Teeth, which brought Wilder his third Pulitzer and second for Drama.

“It’s a very different part than anything I’ve ever played,” he said. “An actor wants to build some kind of biography (in their character), a past life. With this person, what were they before? I tried to do that here and logic was not my friend. Every time I came up with some possible biography, based on what happened in the past, there would be something in the play that would throw that completely off.

“The more I tried to do that, make up a bio for the Stage Manager, the more confusing it got. Wilder describes him on the one hand as a ‘cracker barrel philosopher.’ But as the play goes along, he becomes almost a spirit that pervades the play. I just kind of gave up on that. Maybe I’ll play the Stage Manager and forget about his past and play him moment to moment.”

This opened Landon’s eyes wider. And for his fans, they’ll like what conclusion he arrived at—with the help of Our Town’s director, Beth Lopes.

“It’s probably the least amount of characterization in terms of changing from me to another person. What I’m doing is pretty close to me,” he said. “What I realized after spending time with Beth is she actually introduced that possibility to me. I’m an actor. I want to create this completely different person, but every time I tried to do that, it didn’t seem to fit. It seemed that it had to be grounded in a real present moment. It seemed like I could do that best playing it more or less as myself.”

See Our Town on the Segerstrom Stage May 7-June 4.

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