Concentrated Americana in Aurora's ‘Wilder Times’

Courtesy PhotoShowcase: Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre brings Thornton Wilder’s short works to life in “Wilder Times

Thornton Wilder’s plays are a beguiling mix of everyday Americana and surreal time-bending — not just in classics such as “Our Town,” but in the short works that make up the Aurora Theatre’s “Wilder Times.”

Barbara Oliver directs four one-act plays by Wilder in this often-engaging, but ultimately uneven, production spanning the great playwright’s career, from “The Long Christmas Dinner” and “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” both written in the 1930s, to “Infancy” and “Childhood,” written in 1962.

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The time covered in the plays themselves exerts an even wider reach. “The Long Christmas Dinner,” the show’s strongest offering, starts as a homely holiday meal in a 19th-century homestead, then telescopes 90 years into the future. Unfolding at a gentle time-lapse pace, babies are born, daughters are married, sons go off to war and parents age, finally passing into the great beyond. It’s Wilder at his most wistful and affecting.

If the rest of the evening doesn’t quite achieve the same impact, the other plays — each, in its own way, about family values — demonstrate Wilder’s singular gift for creating character in short bursts.

In “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” we join a New Jersey family of four on a bumpy road trip to visit an ailing daughter; Wilder concludes the comic ride with a mournful grace note. “Infancy” reveals the secret desires of young mothers and their bouncing baby boys, and “Childhood” explores the arcane inner workings of kids’ make-believe games — with a sly appearance by the Stage Manager from “Our Town.”

Oliver delivers a deft staging on Eric Sinkkonen’s set, framed as a storybook with warm lighting by Jim Cave, essential sound by Chris Houston and excellent period costumes by Maggi Yule.

The seven-member cast does the rest, moving set pieces on and off between plays and smoothing the transitions with bits of song. It’s a fine ensemble, with Heather Gordon, Gwen Kingston and Brian Trybom making company debuts alongside Aurora stalwarts Stacy Ross, Soren Oliver, Marcia Pizzo and Patrick Russell.

The performances are uniformly assured; Trybom and Russell deserve special mention as larger-than-life babies in “Infancy.” But it’s the performance by Ross, one of the Bay Area’s greats, that stays with you. As the fiercely loving mother of “Happy Journey,” she seems to embody everything Wilder wanted to say about families.

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