Tommy ( Patrick Russell) and Moe (Brian Trybom) chat about what they want to be when they grow up in “Wilder Times.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli.
Tommy ( Patrick Russell) and Moe (Brian Trybom) chat about what they want to be when they grow up in “Wilder Times.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

Four engaging one-act plays by Thornton Wilder, the three-time Pulitzer prize-winning author, give us insight into Wilder’s view of the ways in which American families live and struggle — for better or for worse. Add a terrific cast and wonderful direction by Barbara Oliver, and these plays come alive. Whether written in the 1930s or the 1960s, the Wilder Times one-act plays remain creative and fresh.

The first two plays, both written in 1962, Infancy and Childhood, show us what deficient parents we’ve had and what flawed parents we are to our children. Infancy and Childhood were written for Wilder’s Plays for Bleecker Street at the Circle in the Square Theater in Greenwich Village, where they were directed by the great José Quintero. Then and now, Wilder’s plays experiment with the private thoughts of his characters.

The creative and appealing Infancy is set in New York’s Central Park, as a nanny (Heather Gordon) and a mother (Stacy Ross) watch their infant charges, while overseen by an amorous policeman (Søren Oliver). Two adult actors (Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom), in cleverly configured carriages and baby bonnets, play the infants. The two “babies” bemoan the trivial baby talk their caregivers use with them when they yearn for knowledge and interesting conversation.

Newly orphaned Mrs. Arizona (l, Marcia Pizzo) bids farewell to a mourner (r, Stacy Ross), who looks conspicuously like her mother, before setting off on her journey to China in Childhood. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

In Childhood, three children (Marcia Pizzo, Heather Gordon and Patrick Russell) imagine that their parents are dead and they start on an adventure to China. Childhood is based on a clever and thought-provoking idea, but it should have ended sooner.

Two plays that Wilder wrote in 1931 follow the intermission. In the ironic production of The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, parents and children take an adventurous car trip to visit an older married daughter. The mother talks nonstop in that annoying manner some mothers have perfected. At the journey’s end, the mother and daughter have difficulty relating and skirt around some difficult issues.

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden is Wilder’s first play to use a Stage Manager as a character. Although used tentatively in The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, seven years later he perfected the use of the Stage Manager narrator with Our Town.

In the most profound and touching of the plays, The Long Christmas Dinner, Wilder experimented successfully with the continuum of time and space. We see three generations of a family at Christmas dinner. Barely leaving the stage, we observe generations of family members live, age and die at the same dinner table. Wilder commented about The Long Christmas Dinner that, “At some performances it has been played to constant laughter; some listeners are deeply moved and shaken by it.” I didn’t hear laughter during the play. I was moved by it.

Thornton Wilder wrote celebrated novels (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Eight Day), plays (Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Match Maker, on which Hello Dolly! was based), and the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 psycho-thriller, Shadow of a Doubt. He remained an avant-garde experimenter. Today we may take for granted the use of the three-sided stage, like Aurora’s own, a theater in the round, a scenery-less empty stage, or a Stage Manager character interacting with the actors, but we have Thornton Wilder to thank for them. In fact, he was already writing plays while a student at Berkeley High in 1915.

Wilder Times is thought provoking, amusing, well acted and directed. What more can one ask from theater?

Wilder Times runs through, December 9, 2012. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...