The Universal ‘Our Town’
On Feb. 4, Ford’s Theatre, the city’s singular historical theater, will hold a 75th Anniversary celebration for Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a play often performed, and often misunderstood, sometimes scorned, but always enduringly loved and unforgettable.
It has always seemed like a peculiarly American play, posited in a vaguely uncertain but specific place, that may, but does not usually, carry a New England accent somewhere in the early years of the 20th century and yet every word in it, every sentence said by every character strives, without seeming to try, for the universal.
Wilder, an ambitious, unique American novelist and playwright always thinks big but within readily identifiable framework: from the Rome of Julius Caesar in “The Ides of March,” to 18th-century Latin America in “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” to the wildly disarrayed, time-spanning family network and dynamics that exist in “The Skin of Our Teeth.”
Yet, it has been “Our Town” that has, in terms of interest, readership vor revivals, outlasted all of his work and his own life by many years. Some critics have delved into it and tasted common (and perhaps uncommon) sentimentality and dismissed it, while directors treat it like a Shakespearean work, expanding the character base in terms of types and ethnic groups, fleshing out Wilder’s specific and specified stage landscape.
It is probably safe to say that somewhere in the United States and in the world, there is a production of “Our Town” being staged, often in the gymnasiums and auditoriums of small towns in America. Perhaps that’s what irritates critics—it’s a play that feels simple on the surface but is hardly simplistic. It charms you, even as it’s telling you hard, difficult truths about life and death and the whole damned thing, and if high school kids can do it and do it well, it cannot possibly be good.
Upon its first debut that the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J. on Jan. 22, 1938, followed by another debut at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston on Jan. 25 and then, officially on Feb. 4 at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York, “Our Town” was something of a revolutionary undertaking. Directed and produced by Jed Harris, the play ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for Wilder, and anchoring itself in the imaginations of theatergoers everywhere.
With its bare-bones set—lots of places and things are talked about, but only seen by the characters—and its somewhat revolutionary role of the Stage Manager who is the audience’s guide to Grover’s Corners and “Our Town” traces the comings and goings of the residents of a very small town and specifically the fortunes of two particular families—the family of the town doctor, Frank Gibbs and the family of the editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel, Charles Webb.
The story’s protagonists are the young couple of George Gibbs and Emily Webb, whom we see in high school, whom we hear dream about their lives, whom we see fall in love, marry and suffer tragedy. All of it is about life and birth and death and love, and it affects audiences in mysterious and truthful ways.
If you have any doubts that in “Our Town,” Wilder is thinking big, just know how one of the characters writes a return address for a piece of mail, a letter: “Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, United States of America, Continent of North America, Western Hemisphere, the Earth, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God.”
The Stage Manager, who takes on many characters in the play, never blinks in staring at and talking about his characters—it’s clear there is love there, but there is a diamond-hard, clear eye that knows that people often and maybe most of the time, don’t understand the life they’re living or appreciate it, or refuse to accept it. Paraphrasing another now forgotten writer, people sometimes wake up amazed at being in a life at all, but life’s rush of events, of daily duty and doings, erase that amazement, by plying it, not ever in equal doses, with joy and sadness. All of that sort of echo is in “Our Town”—it can take place in any mind’s memory and seem not alien at all.
“Our Town’s” life is extended often—by revivals like the one at Ford’s and ground-breaking efforts in New York and the Village, and there have been many stage managers (including Geraldine Fitzgerald, breaking the gender wall), as well as Spalding Gray and may Gibbs and Webb families and Emily’s and George’s, and trips to the graveyards by high school students playing the young lovers. I wouldn’t be surprised, were it not for the nightly awesome fear, that I dreamt of being the stage manager too. William Holden, just on the verge of becoming someone special in the movies, played George to young Martha Scott’s Emily. There was a musical version on Producer’s Showcase, one of those network live plays with big stars, which featured Frank Sinatra as the stage manager, singing about “Love and Marriage,” and Paul Newman and the ethereally beautiful Eva Marie Saint play George and Emily. Years later, Newman became the Stage Manager in a television film version, still alive but not much longer.
Arena Stage took “Our Town” (and “Inherit the Wind”) to the Soviet Union, then, years later, restaged it with the perfect Stage Manager, Robert Prosky, who was the kind of actor who could command the stage with wisdom and comforting pity for all of mankind.
You see in “Our Town” newspaper boys, soldiers-to-be, daughters becoming mothers, a town that still had what it called the other side of the tracks, baseball players, an undertaker, the rumored drunk, the milkman, the choir director, the farmer. The play is specific because of its title—but you could change that: our block, our neighborhood, our wherever we live in a group and as families, where there might as always be nightclubs and churches, clinics and homes.
In many ways, “Our Town” is a play in keeping with Ford’s tradition and image, which is still evolving, as it is the play itself. This production is directed by Stephen Rayne, who has put sharp Americana edges on “The Heavens Hung in Black,” “Sabrina Fair” and the dark musical “Parade.”
“ ‘Our Town’ is a play which transcends differences in culture, class and race, and speaks to the great themes common to all great art: love, death and marriage,” Rayne said. “From its first production in 1938, the play struck a powerful chord with the American psyche, and it is as fresh and relevant today as it was then. I am hoping to bring a fresh perspective to this great classic and present a production that Ford’s and Mr. Wilder will be proud of.”
“Our Town” will be performed at Ford’s Theatre Jan. 25 through Feb. 24.