Thornton Wilder’s Our Town premiered in 1938. Using minimal set pieces and somewhat sparse dialogue, he told the story of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in three acts. It won the Pulitzer for Best Drama. Grover’s Corners is a fictional town, which almost certainly means it’s supposed be the quintessential American town. Every town. With its plainspoken Stage Manager, setting up planks to create a soda fountain and talking directly to the audience, it makes no pretensions of being anything but rural. Curiously, Wilder makes a point of letting us know there’s no culture to speak of, museums or concert halls, but even this humble hamlet has its town drunks and tawdry secrets. Somehow, though the people we see in Grover’s Corners, don’t seem to take pleasure in gossip or the transgressions of others.
Our Town seems to concern itself mostly with the lives of The Webbs and The Gibbs. George Gibbs and Emily Webb are the oldest children and pretty much grow up together. Their dads are the town doctor and editor of the newspaper. We learn things about other characters, but mostly it seems to revolve around their growing attachment and fondness for each other. Eventually the two will get married, and the show skips around the timeline, beginning Act Two with the wedding before we see the intriguing incident that galvanizes George’s resolve to propose. A proposal, incidentally, we never actually hear. In Act Three Emily dies in childbirth, and the Stage Manager explains how humans are gradually “weaned away from the earth.”
Our Town is an elusive, deceptively non-rhetorical play. Obtuse and off-the-cuff, it sneaks up on you. It would be remiss to discuss Our Town without recognizing Wilder’s breakthrough of technique and result. The tone is somber, but never cynical or grim. Characters discuss topics like suicide and a man nearly freezing to death in the same way you might explain a recipe. But not out of bitterness or insensitivity. When Frank Gibbs explains to George he’s been taking his mother for granted, we are surprised when he offers his son a handkerchief. George’s sudden regret almost goes unnoticed. It’s easy to mistake Our Town’s nonchalance for quaintness, until a moment like Myrtle Gibb’s troubling epiphany, that there’s something “so wrong with the world.” Like a fact we always knew, but never said aloud.
Wilder finds a way in Our Town to disclose very sobering truths about what it means to be human, while explaining through the Stage Manager, that he doesn’t want to be hurtful. This is fairly revolutionary stuff for 1938. Especially when you consider how powerful these ideas are, in comparison to other playwrights take more time to reach their own particular versions of the truth. (With all due respect to Williams, O’Neill and Inge) He balances the disaffection of the dead with what must be one of the most famous scenes in the American Theatre. Emily relives a birthday from her adolescence and realizes (to her chagrin) that we’re too busy filling time to grasp how truly miraculous the world is. “Oh, Mama,” she says, “just look at me one minute as though you really saw me”. I cannot speak for others, but when Emily (Madyson Greewood) spokes these words, I got chills before my eyes filled with tears.
The Core Theatre has done an impeccable, pitch-perfect job with Our Town. The entire ensemble (eighteen actors!) is dedicated, authentic, canny and personable. At first I was leery of using contemporary costume for a play set in the early 20th Century, but it really seemed to work well. Director James Prince has brought out the nuances and profound poignancy of this quietly overwhelming script. If you love theatre, make time to see this.