Our Town

L-R: Michael Edmund as Editor Webb and Shelley Little as Emily

I have many irrational (thus heartfelt) reasons for loving Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner Our Town. One is that I lived for two months in the studio in which Wilder wrote the play at the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, NH, which is rumored to be the town on which Wilder based Grover’s Corners. And the town I grew up in, Wakefield, Rhode Island is very much like it. I have literally breathed the air and stared at the stars and walked through the pastures of Our Town. 

Much like Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life one isn’t sure quite what the hell Our Town is, but you’d still want to put it on the short list of important American plays. Yet like Saroyan’s, one isn’t even sure it’s a play. There are several other reasons why I like it. One (and least rationally): as a New Englander, I have a deep attachment for the setting. The “town” of “our town”. It feels like my people up there. It’s indefensible as a reason for liking something, but its one of my reasons here. Much more importantly: more so than even the work of O’Neill, this play feels like a partial fulfillment – formally — of my hope for an American playwright who could stand in a class with America’s great poets, and fiction and non-fiction writers. This is partly true, ironically, I think because Our Town isn’t even really a play (so it’s a cheat and not the actual fulfillment). When I think of those “great writers”, I’m usually thinking of Melville and Whitman—who scaled breathtaking heights and plumbed breathtaking depths…and whose great works were so unconventional they almost seem to cry out for a new vocabulary to describe them. The experimentation in Moby Dick and the Confidence Man seem to make the usual approach for talking about a novel seem inadequate, and ditto the usual discourse of poetry for Leaves of Grass. Here, we have something that is not quite a “play”. What I revere is the way he takes a deep, American resonant milieu (one that has that emotional attachment I described—this is the folkish element), then extends it to the metaphysical, bringing it to the level of philosophy and poetry, and plays with it formally in that precocious, Melvillian way, as when Wilder has a professor step out and give the geological history of Grovers Corner’s (reminiscent of the chapter on cetology in Moby Dick).

Ultimately, this is a play about death, as –ultimately—all plays should be. It has its limitations, though. The play is a bit of a Hallmark card, intentionally, I think, and Wilder gets to have his cake and eat it too. It is undoubtedly one of the most produced plays in America…an extremely “commercial” property. It possesses a deceptive surface conventionality that allows this. It feels — and is — too light until maybe the play’s last minutes. Wilder needed to go deeper and farther to get people thinking for any longer than 30 seconds after they leave the theater. Also, he’s not the poet one would need to be to really get at metaphysical truths…he, like so many others, is a sort of poet of stage directions. The work possesses the stage’s equivalent of poetry in a good production, but no one verbalizes it. It is a singularly weird mix…he seems to have only middle-brow (“businessman theater”) chops as a writer of dialogue, but he takes on ambitious themes and breaks all sorts of new ground even while he panders. It is a sort of mix of Norman Rockwell and Jasper Johns.

It’s real strange to watch the play in the midst of the present election, after several years of Tea Party rabble-rousing…it’s taken a lot of the glow of romance away from the play for me, to hear of a town that’s “86% Republican”, has no further awareness of culture beyond “Robinson Crusoe  and the Bible” and takes a little too much interest in the comings and goings of Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choirmaster, whom (I hope) New York audiences can’t help relating to, as he sure as hell feels like a stand-in for me and anyone I know for that matter. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in humanizing all humans…including the people who have nothing better to do than watch the sun rise and set on Grover’s Corners. But sometimes you just can’t help remembering, “Well…humanizing these people is more than they’d do for me.”

Lynn Berg was tremendous as Stimson in Tongue in Cheek’s current production of the play at Shetler Studios (playing through October 27), bringing poignancy and nuance to one of the play’s plum roles (my old acting teacher played it in Trinity Rep’s production in the mid 80s, so it has fond associations for me). Other stand-outs included Shelly Little’s Emily Webb, in a subtle and effective performance, and Kathryn Neville Brown as Mrs. Webb.

Unfortunately I wasn’t crazy about the production. The majority of the performances are weak to put it mildly, including — fatally — director/producer Jake Lipman as the Stage Manager. I didn’t mind the gender switching in the slightest (Lipman is a female); but the fact that she plays the role (as do many others in her production) without the specificity demanded by such central concepts as “New England”, “rural” or even “down-to-earth” creates a void at the center of the thing that reduces the proceedings to nonsense. In other words, Wilder’s play is about the universal, of course…but a universal springing from a reality that is personal and specific. In this production, the latter quality is missing…leaving us in the middle of nowhere, as opposed to everywhere. That envelope, which is dressed ultimately to “The Universe” needs to do a much better job of spelling out “Grover’s Corners”.

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