Frank Rich’s column this morning is an elegant tribute to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the current resurgence of interest in the play.
“Once again,” he writes, “its astringent distillation of life and death in the fictional early-20th-century town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is desperately needed to help strip away ‘layers and layers of nonsense’ so Americans can remember who we are — and how lost we got in the boom before our bust.”
I can count myself among the legions of high school veterans of the play. Our production took place in times of similar uncertainty, performed before three wonderfully receptive audiences over the course of a weekend. Beyond the auditorium, Vietnam raged and anger seethed. A guy at the clothing store where I worked part-time was convinced a race war was about to erupt.
I played Dr. Gibbs, who I understand now, though I didn’t then, was remarkably a-political in his compassion and (I did get this) almost self-deprecating in his humility. What the audience and cast and crew shared that weekend in this muted, understated tragedy was perhaps a couple of hours of meditating on what mattered most to us, of facing our own humanity – our mortality and the question of how we would conduct ourselves in the brief time of our lives. Our, as Rich points out, is an operative word in the play's title. These are shared sensibilities, a communal experience, not just of theater but of life.
It was a high school production, but its dimensions felt as large as a Greek tragedy, and still do. Our director, Joe Towers, now deceased, deserves much of the credit for raising the level of what we did beyond its obvious limitations. But Wilder’s script spoke to something that allowed the audience to forget that I was a seventeen-year-old speaking the lines of a middle-aged man, and that age, the hard chairs of a high school auditorium, and all of the limitations of a small budget and very-amateur performers were not barriers to sharing the universal sense of wonder at being alive that the play invokes.
I’d love to hear from visitors who also participated in a production of Our Town. If you’d like to contribute a post with your story, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org (pasted into the e-mail). Or just hit the Comments link below.*