Even now, all these years later, whenever I pass a building that once was a Holiday Inn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I always smile.
No, it’s not because I’d spent wild and passionate nights there. The place is just what I happened to see from a bus window after I’d looked up startled from the play I’d been reading. “This is terrible!” I thought.
It was Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN.
Give me a break: I was 15 years old, and was j-u-s-t getting interested in this new world of theater. And for someone who’d been used to movies with lots of action and heavy plots, OUR TOWN – despite my hearing that it was The Great American Play – struck me as the quintessence of boredom. Although I’d only read about five pages, I’d had enough and stopped right there. Better to just stare out the window on my way home than read about dull life in a small town at the turn of the century.
Flash forward eight years to my starting my First Real Job as an English teacher at a nearby high school. I did the usual first-day-of-school chores, getting the kids alphabetically arranged in their seats and giving each one a textbook. But that took all of 15 minutes, and there were still 30 minutes left in the period.
What to do, what to do? I opened the textbook and saw that OUR TOWN was in it. All right, the play stinks, but I’ll assign parts to various kids and we’ll read it aloud. That’ll pass the time – badly, yes, but at least we’ll have something to do.
Well! In those eight years, Thornton Wilder MUST have done a complete rewrite of his 1938 comedy-drama. How else to explain why I now realized that this was a masterpiece worthy of a Pulitzer Prize?
You think that growing up had something to do with it? Now I was so touched by Mrs. Gibbs’ saying that she’d received a $350 offer for a piece of furniture – nearly $9,000 in today’s dollars, mind you – and would sell it to take a trip to Paris. She immediately amended her thoughts with “It sounds crazy.”
No, in fact, it’s not crazy at all to want to travel. And how sad I was when I saw in Act Three that Mrs. Gibbs died without selling the unit and that the closest she got to Paris was making and serving her family French toast every day. How many times, I wondered, did she say to herself, “Next year.”
Then, suddenly, there was no next year.
Since my reacquaintance with OUR TOWN, it’s been unchallenged as my favorite American play. I love how it stresses that even in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a one-horse, one-automobile town – pop. 2,462 – that Life is Worth Living.
Although I’ve seen 12 productions ranging from high school to Broadway, when I saw that the always estimable Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada – doing 10 productions in repertory – was doing OUR TOWN, it was the No-Brainer Must-See above all.
Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith has staged it in extraordinarily simple fashion. Alas, the production only runs through Oct. 15. Considering that one character notes that people “spend and waste time as though they have a million years,” don’t let this happen to you! See OUR TOWN in the next two months.
As “The Stage Manager” Benedict Campbell is our tour guide. His charming and easy-going manner makes him seem to be a low-key representative of a Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. (An aside: Campbell not only took on this demanding role, but – are you ready for this? – also played the title character in SWEENEY TODD the very next day. That’s repertory for you!)
The Stage Manager shows us that this sleepy burg isn’t all that sleepy. Even here people rush to get to school, to put breakfast on the table, to get the newspaper out on time, to deliver the milk. But Wilder wasn’t above showing that small towns bring small-mindedness, benign though it may be. “If a person starts out to be a teacher, she should stay one,” insists Joe Crowell, Jr. of his current instructor who’s leaving her post to be married. Actually, Wilder did start out as a teacher, but segued into playwriting; once he started, he was still teaching us, this time to appreciate life.
Crowell was Grover’s Corners’ prize pupil but died in World War I. “All that education for nothing,” The Stage Manager rues, citing life’s unfairness. Later Wilder cited what Grover’s Corners’ students were learning in school: Cicero’s oration, square yards, solid geometry, The Monroe Doctrine and The Louisiana Purchase. Could Wilder have been implying that there was all THAT “education for nothing,” too? After all, few would insist that average people need those five items in their daily lives.
“Not much culture in Grover’s Corners,” The Stage Manager admits. Wilder certainly provided some through this masterwork. As The Stage Manager mentions, “In Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theater.” See how valuable art can be?
We all know the expression “to stop and smell the roses” – meaning to take time out of our busy lives in order to experience small pleasures. One must wonder if the expression has its roots in what Wilder had Mrs. Gibbs (a wonderfully unmannered Catherine McGregor) tell her husband (an equally fine Patrick McManus): “Come out and smell my heliotrope.”
Even if he didn’t, Wilder knew that detailing such moments elevates what seem to be commonplace characters. When an average female citizen approaches teen George Gibbs (the excellent Charlie Gallant), he takes off his hat in respect. Afterward he gets into “an important conversation” with Emily Webb; here Gallant is amazing in having George stop so abruptly mid-proposal that he seemed to be a television that had been abruptly shut off.
But once he did make his intentions known, we only need to see the glow on Kate Besworth’s face to realize that Emily’s thinking “That’s the man I’m going to marry!” (And how we smile when Mrs. Gibbs says on their wedding day “I don’t know how they’ll get along.” They’ll manage, they’ll manage … )
Wilder pointed out how so many of us resist change: Grover’s Corners residents are content with their tried-and-true horses and regard new-fangled automobiles with suspicion. But this new look at the play twice caused me to wonder if Wilder was even more forward-thinking that I’d realized.
During the marriage ceremony, when The Stage Manager asks “Do you, George” and “Do you, Emily,” an attendee (the hilarious Sharry Flett) interrupts to comment on the proceedings. Now perhaps Wilder didn’t want to bore us with the words we’ve all heard dozens of times at weddings … or did he purposely eliminate the admonition that Emily should “love, honor and obey” because he believed a wife shouldn’t agree to the last verb?
Similarly, Wilder seemed to choose his words very carefully when he had Mrs. Gibbs admit that “People are meant to live two-by-two” followed by The Stage Manager’s noting that “Most of them set out to live two-by-two.” Today, when evidence strongly suggests that Wilder was gay, did he intentionally not limit the two-by-two-ism to “men and women?”
How poignant Kate Besworth was when Emily gives a list of 11 of life’s pleasures and includes “sleeping and waking up.” By this point in Act Three, OUR TOWN has awakened us from our metaphorical sleep. Emily says that people “don’t understand” the glories of being alive. No, but Thornton Wilder did, and his stating that “The least important day of your life will be important enough” has helped millions in the last 80 years to better understand their existence.
Plenty of plays become dated in far less time than eight decades. Not OUR TOWN, save one line that betrays the play’s age – when The Stage Manager says before the first intermission “You can go smoke now.” If Wilder were writing today, he’d pen “You can go check your messages now.” Other than that, however, the experiences he detailed about growing up, dating, getting married, settling down and experiencing death have remained – and will remain — constant and universal.
One last question: OUR TOWN requires virtually no sets, so theaters love to program it to save on their season budgets. But if the play did require elaborate sets, would it still be done as often?