Premiering in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was a boldly modernist piece for its time. Eschewing traditional theatrical practices, Wilder’s play embraces the confines and limitations of the theater in order to explore more directly the sort of emotions that transcend fictional artifice, that span the space between stage and auditorium, and that need no fourth wall to refract their reality.
Of course that was all as true in 1938 as it has been since. The difference is that Wilder was looking back in time only about one generation when he set his play at the turn of the century. Now we must strain our minds much further to get back to a time of milkmen leading cows through the streets and all the rest of the play’s quaint details. So the question remains what it is about this play that helps it and its relevance persist into the contemporary world.
I confess being troubled by that question through much of the first two acts of Our Town’s production at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Impressively acted by a strong cast and steadily directed by Joseph Discher, the production by all accounts gives us a faithful Our Town, and certainly it is always a treat to see a strong staging of such an important play, keeping it alive in our collective memory. But there needs to be more to a theatrical event than a simple presentation and embodiment of a work with which most people have had at the very least a passing acquaintance.
Discher and his stellar leading lady Nisi Sturgis have found that lasting element and their production demonstrates the power of Our Town to still affect us. We may have to wait until the third act to find it, but when the play delivers its most profound ideas and Sturgis shows her dynamic range, the production makes worthwhile the necessary grounding of acts one and two. Those acts burst with charm, while act three serves as a sobering reminder of the unpleasantness always waiting just on the periphery of warmth and happiness.
The production opens as Wilder intended: prior to the lights going down, before the audience is entirely aware that the show is starting, with the play’s narrator the Stage Manager (Philip Goodwin) emerging to set a few pieces of sparse scenery. As the task concludes, the Stage Manager looks out over the audience (Wilder’s script notes that the character watches as the late arrivals find their seats) and greets us with the show’s credits. He tells us the play’s title and author, that it is being produced by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and he gives us the names of a handful of the performers who we will shortly see. The technique places Our Town in the immediacy of the realm in which it is presented: the stage, theater, and time of its production.
As a result, we watch Our Town as if watching an historical reenactment that encourages us to remember the framework of fiction in which it is being presented. The next two acts are full of the early-twentieth-century quaintness with which small-town America has come to be identified. The local milkman chats with the polite young paperboy; the town doctor delivers twins; the local kids complain about being made to do homework rather than play. And of course local boy meets local girl, falling in love and settling down right here in Grover’s Corners. Hints of discord creep into the proceedings here and there—the church organ player is a worrisome drunk, and the marriage between Doc and Mrs. Gibbs is not without its problems—but for the most part the play’s first two acts are an ode to quaintness and charm.
It is the third act that takes place in the cemetery on a hill overlooking Grover’s Corners that qualifies that quaintness with a dose of unrelenting reality. When life forces the residents of Grover’s Corners to climb the hill to the cemetery, their happiness goes on hiatus, but there quaintness more or less remains: nobody is deluded enough to think that charm protects a community from loss.
But Wilder undercuts this by focusing in the third act on the dead rather than the living. We hear more lines from the embodied deceased than from the still-living characters, and we learn much more about Our Town’s point of view concerning the life that seemed so charming and pleasant in its opening two acts.
The ethos of the final act is jarring because it seems so very at odds with what has preceded it, and just in case we are not thrown askew by this aspect, Wilder gives us Emily – played by Sturgis – as the on-stage surrogate for our experience. Emily who was so bright-eyed and cheerful through much of the play is now confused, disheartened, and scared, making a transition in character that no other character in the play must make. Sturgis succeeds fully in capturing both the change in character and the agonizing transitional stages of that change. As she learns harsh truths about the seemingly pleasant life of Grover’s Corners and beyond, Sturgis’s Emily fights both to release her deeply engrained beliefs and to embrace a new reality.
The world of Our Town’s first two acts grows even more distant from our world all the time, but the ideas of its final act remain important; they might even grow more important as the world grows faster and technology threatens to force people further away from each other. While plenty about this production’s opening acts seems distant and at times tediously so, Discher and Sturgis do very well at the close to capture the play’s lasting immediacy.