Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Performance length: about 2 and ½ hrs. with a 15-minute intermission.
SET DESIGN: Easy
COSTUME DESIGN: East
CAST POTENTIAL: This play is composed of a large cast of archetypal characters (fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, and one stage manager). Given that there is no scenery and only a few props, even the smallest part plays a huge role in creating the “world” on stage.
CROWD REACTION: Over 70 years old, this plays style and structure are still perceived as groundbreaking and unique. In an age where spectacle and scenery have dominated the American stage, audiences find the simplicity and directness of this play refreshing.
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SUMMARY: Earning Wilder his first Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Our Town is set in a theatre where the Stage Manager tells us we are to watch a play written by Thornton Wilder about a New England town called Grover’s Corners. As the title suggests, this town is supposed to be representative of all America; its story similar to our own.
The play is composed of three acts: “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage,” and “Death and Eternity.” The first depicts a typical morning between the Gibbs’ and Webbs’ homes. It is here we first detect a romance between George Gibbs and Emily Webb. The second act illustrates the development of George and Emily’s relationship and ends with their marriage. The final act takes place in a cemetery where Emily watches her own funeral (she dies delivering her second child). Despite the admonition from the other dead, Emily chooses to re-live one day of her life, her 12th birthday. Feeling a mixture of bliss and grief as she watches her old life, she asks the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” To which the Stage Manager simply replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”
CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: Because it is routinely performed without any set and only a few prop pieces, this play can be very demanding for young actors who have to establish the entire world with their careful and precise pantomime.
Another cautionary quality of this script is its inherent sentimentality. The play’s final act, especially, invites a mournful, maudlin tone (after all, the act’s main character, Emily, is dead). But actors should resist the temptation to play into this sentimentality. Played simply, truthfully, the emotion of the text will carry through without any additional quivering and weepiness from the cast. Executed well, this play will illustrate the maturity and control of your cast.
SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: Wilder’s dramaturgy highlights the essential qualities of the theatre: the actors, the audience, and the stage. Nothing more.
However, a recent production of Our Town in New York City, brilliantly directed by David Cromer, broke this convention of the play be reverting to complete naturalism in the final act. When Emily decides to revisit her 12th birthday, the curtain at the back of the stage was pulled aside, revealing a fully-adorned set, complete with furniture, walls, and a working stove (the audience could actually smell bacon cooking). Cromer’s “twist” destabilized the audience’s expectations based on the preconceived and historical performance of Wilder’s text. It made the play’s final moments that much more heartfelt and painful. Cromer’s vision is a perfect example how to break the playwright’s wishes while still honoring the heart of his play.
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: Edward Albee complains that most productions of Our Town miss the point. They present it like a “Christmas card” without acknowledging how cutting and existential the play truly is. Wilder was trying to reconstitute that life is both fragile and ephemeral. If the play appears “sentimental,” it is because our perception of memory, family, love, and death are sentimental. But sentimentality is the result of a good performance, not the quality of it.