Amazingly enough, until this past Sunday I’d never actually seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, nor even read the play. I think I assumed that it was an exercise in sentimentality – a love letter to a lost world – as well as a theatrical museum piece, using techniques that might have been avant-guard in 1938 but that would seem quaint today. After taking in Stratford’s magnificent production of The Matchmaker back in 2012, you’d think I would have learned that I have an affinity for Wilder, but apparently not yet. Now, having just seen the very traditional production on view at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, I think I won’t forget. Although, if I take Wilder’s own play to heart, I know I eventually will.
Our Town is, as the name would imply, the story of a town. As traditionally staged, though, we never see it. There’s barely any scenery, and basically no props. We are asked to imagine our way into the town based on the acting (which is uniformly excellent in this production) and the historical, anthropological, even geological information provided by the Stage Manager and his guest lecturers. At the time Wilder wrote it, it might well be possible for audience to imagine their way in through memory, real or quasi-real (most audience members wouldn’t have grown up in places like Grover’s Corners, but small town life was part of the larger social memory). Any nostalgia that a contemporary theater audience were to indulge in would likely be third hand or even further from reality. We are asked, even more than in Wilder’s day, to awake our faith.
Faith in what, though? Faith that such a place as Grover’s Corners was real.
Was it? I said that the play isn’t sentimental, but on the surface it looks like it very much is. The people we see are, after all, good people, decent people, to a man. This is not a town divided by strife, or secretly perverse. Heck, two major plot points are when George Gibbs (Jordan Coughtry, who seems perhaps too good for a boy who’s always been shamed) is shamed into chopping wood for his mother, a chore he has been neglecting, and when he is shamed, by his future wife, Emily Webb (a delightfully fresh-faced Nisi Sturgis) into admitting that he’s been rather conceited lately since his triumphs on the baseball diamond.
It’s not a town without troubles of course. Promising boys go off to war for no particularly good reason, and some don’t come back. Women die in childbirth. Five percent of the cast is so beset by troubles as to be moved to suicide. But still, one might be forgiven for thinking it’s the kind of picture that Tom Lehrer satirized in “My Home Town.”
You might think that – until you get to the terrible (as in inspiring terror) third act, with its message that life, the essential truth of life, that we are present here together, is almost impossible for the living to appreciate. Those people we saw going about being so decent to each other – they didn’t appreciate it, not really. And then they died, and (this is the kicker) lost interest in that very life that they were unable to appreciate while they had it. That’s a brilliant touch, saying that the dead don’t yearn for life – they learn indifference to it, and to focus on, of all things, the future.
The old saw says that if you want to send a message, use Western Union, and Our Town seems constructed to belie that line. Because the Stage Manager (played with fine assurance and a deep-buried darkness by Philip Goodwin), our guide to Grover’s Corners, will not stop talking to us, telling us what we’re supposed to know. He’s not a Brechtian alienation device – his reminders that this is a play, thanking the players and pointing out the limited scenery and so forth, don’t cause us to think about any underlying substructure of the society depicted; they just bring us back to, closer to, him. He is the bearer of a message, a message to the audience, a message that had to be dramatized for us to receive it, hence the play. He’s our Virgil, but he’s guiding us not through the afterlife but through this life, and that’s the message: this is life. Not this is the good life or real life or a life properly lived, and isn’t it a shame we’ve fallen away from it. Life.
The characters we see are decent, but they aren’t notably happy – that state we’ve all got an inalienable right to pursue. Some, like Julia Gibbs (a twinkle-eyed Marion Adler with a bit of the Widow Paroo in her manner) or Emily, her eventual daughter-in-law, project a certain lust for life, but not one that ever breaks the bounds of propriety. Others, like the editor of the local paper, Charles Webb (an quietly sardonic James Michael Reilly), have long since figured out that life is just to be got through, and are trying to put a good face on it. A few, like the choir master Simon Stimson (an angrily repressed Mark Dold) can’t quite manage that much. We never find out why Stimson kills himself, because it doesn’t matter why (though I have my suspicions about the source of that repressed anger); he’s had a heap of trouble, and to pry further would be to miss the point. Troubles are just part of life. Sometimes and for some people, an overwhelming part.
If there were more conflict in the town, this would merely be a distraction, would delude us into thinking that there would be happiness if that conflict were resolved. Ditto if there were any especial heroism. The most fundamental thing, our inability to be present in our lives, really present, cannot be solved. It’s part of the nature of life that it passes by. Not because we’re too busy doing this, nor because we aren’t doing that – life isn’t not lived because we aren’t living rightly or nobly or with sufficient excitement. It’s not lived because it’s beyond the capacity of the living, except for saints and poets. Sometimes.
Which explains why there are no props, almost no scenery; why most of what we see we see only in our own mind, assisted by the actors. The Stage Manager isn’t distracting us by taking us somewhere else; he’s asking us to be here, where we actually are. He wants us to listen to, and look at, him, as the deceased Emily wishes her family would look at her when she was alive. That’s his notion of what the theater is for. I don’t think it’s a quaint idea. Not yet, anyway.
Our Town plays at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey through November 17th.