It's About Life: Our Town
I can remember in high school being instructed in how to select a topic for a report. “Don’t say your paper about World War II,” the teacher said. “That’s way too broad. Be as specific as possible.” It was good advice—you could fill the Library of Congress with material “about World War II”…and likely, it is.
However, I’ve found that advice that works well for mere mortals is not necessarily applicable to genius. Consider multi-Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and author Thornton Wilder and his consummate American drama, “Our Town,” now at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. Wilder was once quoted as saying, “The play…is an attempt at complete immersion into everything about a New Hampshire village which, I hope, is gradually felt by the audience to be an allegorical representation of all life.”
Yes, a play about “all life.” The play, in fact, is divided into three acts entitled, “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage,” and “Death and Eternity.” It’s the Alpha and the Omega in Pepperidge Farm Country, wonderfully told by Wilder as he examines the human condition, New England style, circa 1901-1913. The Everyman does more than justice to Wilder’s work, assembling a cast of 20, including seven students from the Baltimore School for the Arts along with the Everyman’s resident company members and other actors.
As my theater companion explained, “Our Town” being her favorite play, Wilder’s vision of life in the New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners—population, 2,642, mostly Protestant and Republican—is less about plot and character, and more about the feelings and emotions that the play evokes…the feelings between husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son…how neighbors’ see, treat, and appreciate each other, how they view their roles in the larger family which is the town.
Wil Love plays the “Stage Manager,” who has one foot in Grover’s Corners and one in the present reality of the audience with whom he addresses directly with just the right “yah cahnt get theyah from heah” accent as he explains the who, what, when, where and why of this “very ordinary town” which finds its roots in the 17th century.
Perennial Everyman performer Bruce Nelson is Doctor Gibbs who dispenses tough fatherly love to a baseball-preoccupied son, George (Matthew Schleigh) in a scene that is as relevant today as it was a century ago. The innocence of George and Emily (Julia Proctor) and their relationship might seem a bit difficult for today’s uber-cynical younger people to accept, but the awkwardness of boy-meeting-girlfriend’s-father and the fear both George and Emily portray as they are suddenly faced with the reality of leaving the safety of childhood to become responsible adults is something we all can relate to.
My play companion was surprised to learn that this was the first performance of “Our Town” that I had seen and I must admit I had some “preconceived notions” coming in to the play…”Our Town,” a folksy slice of “Americana” (whatever that is, some mix of hot dogs, apple pie, Sarah Palin and FOX News) that perhaps served as a model for Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, all innocence and light…but actually, “Our Town” has a rather darker, cosmological side that is especially apparent in the third and final act.
Set in a cemetery, we see the late Mrs. Gibbs (Emily Townley), Simon Stimson (Stan Weiman, playing the town drunk who eventually hung himself after suffering from a “peck of trouble” that no member of the town ever dares discuss in detail), busybody Mrs. Soames (Julia Brandeberry) and number of other deceased town members who, as the Stage Manager notes, have been “weaned from the earth,” and are waiting to connect with that “eternal” element that is part of every human being.
Emily has died in childbirth and we see her make the painful transition from “one of them,” that is, the living, to join those who have passed on. It’s a wonderfully crafted scene that drives home a powerful message—that the activity of our daily lives, the cooking, cleaning, the idle chatter, etc., is all so much noise covering what is the true essence of life like a heavy wool blanket. How we feel about each other, the love that we have for one another, the incredible Eden which is the world all about us, these are the things that truly matter and yet it seems only in death, when all the noise has died down do we finally realize this.
While George Lies crumpled at her feet, crippled in pain at the lose of his wife, Emily has already turned her head upward to the stars, toward the eternal, having been “weaned from the earth,” and it is clear there is a divide—we the living, blind to what is most wonderful in life (with the exception of “some saints and poets” who can see such things, the Stage Manager tells us), and the dead, who see only the light of eternity, of serenity, of peace.
Kudos to the entire cast for bringing to life this turn of the century town complete with the gardens of Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs', their neighboring houses, the daily milk delivery, a church and choir, and more all with a few sound effects, hand gestures and a simple set all designed to evoke the brightest visual response from the audience's imagination. The costumes and hair styles were all spot-on, from George's slicked hair to the Stage Manager's watch and chain.
“Our Town” runs through April 18th with performances Wednesday through Sunday at the Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles Street. For more information or for tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or go online at www.everymantheatre.org.