A handful of musicians—on the mandolin, the banjo, the fiddle, more bluegrass than the traditional, big-band orchestration—sit onstage, watching and reacting to the action. Actors enter and exit the barn-like auditorium through the same doors as the audience. Chili and cornbread are served at intermission. This Oklahoma!, then, wisely staged at the smaller Circle in the Square Theatre, is predicated on intimacy: intimacy between audience and actors but also between characters. Absent the vivid color of the 1955 film adaptation, this muted, bare-bones revival keeps reminding us that on the eve of statehood, Oklahoma was sparse. Every boy is the boy next door, beau and predator alike.
So from the beginning, when Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) ambles onstage, strumming a guitar and serenading Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi-Jones), the setting seems to rebut his song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.'” Even the light comedy of Ali Hakim (Will Brill), the Persian peddler and lothario who romances and then flees Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), has a nervous energy to it, as if Hakim knows what’s coming and wants out. A late scene between Curly and Laurey’s other suitor, Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), is played in pitch darkness to terrifying effect, as Curly fantasizes aloud about his rival’s suicide, blurring the distinction between his aw-shucks persona and Jud’s more aggressive demeanor.
And the dream sequence that bridges Act One and Two, here moved to after intermission, is electrifying: in a surreal representation of Laurey’s struggle to decide between Curly and Jud, the dancer Gabrielle Hamilton, in modern dress, frequently makes eye contact with members of the audience, returning or perhaps rejecting our gaze. At times she gallops around the stage, following these bursts of athleticism with quieter moments set to the sound of her heavy breathing. Running almost thirteen minutes—surely an endurance test for Hamilton—the dance allows us to lapse into a trance-like state. When it’s over, there is a sense of closeness with her, but that closeness is tinged with menace. In other words, our intimacy suggests the possibility of violence as much as it does love. Like the show as a whole, the dance demonstrates that there is much we can do to revivify these staid mid-century classics.