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Our Town: A Play in Three Acts by Thornton Wilder
Our Town: A Play in Three Acts

theatretours, December 18, 2006

The play Our Town is an incredibly beautiful study of the ?everyday? life. This play is one of the most produced American plays and so has become almost overused. Unfortunately the play is not frequently produced well. Wilder has instilled it with the potential to be an incredibly powerful show that can create a dramatic and immediate effect for the audience. This play is about the lives of ordinary people and the difference between living life and loving life.
The title of the play sets up the scene as well as the basic tone of the play. ?Our? implies a strong sense of community. There is a feeling of a town created by a group of people that is inseparable and complete. The title does not reveal all since it is so short. A similar title could give a negative connotation, for example Simon and Garfunkel?s ?My Little Town?. While this song also discusses small town life the tone is completely different; cynical to the limited nature of the town. A few pages into Wilder?s play Mr. Webb explains that the town appreciates this limited environment: ?we like the sun comin? up over the mountain in the morning, and we all notice a great deal about the birds.? The title ?Our Town? also points out a central point of the play: that the town is made up of people and their lives.
The characters in the play are mostly the citizens of the town. The exception to this may be the Stage Manager. Besides narrating, the Stage Manger fills in for all the little roles that touch people?s lives in purely pedestrian ways. He becomes the old lady on the street, the minister and the soda shop owner. These are the people who ?manage? our lives, in a way. That is, they all affect us in known and predictable ways that are rarely surprising. They help to define the boundaries of our lives and establish ?the norm?. The Stage Manger is motivated, by his own explicate explanation, to show the town off in a play that will be left in a time capsule for generations to find in the future. Throughout the play he frequently explains why things happen the way they do and is always trying to make things as clear as possible. His desire is to share the town with the world and to instill a sense of the simple pleasures of life on the audience.
The other major characters are Emily Webb and George Gibbs. They are both well-developed characters, but they needn?t be. Their story of marriage and life is a story repeated by each generation in Grover?s corner. George plays baseball but wants to be a farmer and Emily is the brightest in her class but she just wants to be a mother and a wife. The song ?Tradition? from Fiddle on the Roof comes to mind. The people?s ambitions are to follow in their parents? footsteps: get married, have children, die happy. This is still to a large extent the ambition of the average American. The conversation between the two at the ice cream parlor is one of the most touching scenes because it reminds the audience of their first experiences with attraction and romance as adolescents. The scene is written with a tone of comfortable awkwardness that leads into acceptance and excitement. George?s line ?So I guess this is an important talk we?ve been having? is telling because it is a major step towards the completion of both of their dreams.
Despite the constant flow of life throughout the play, that is not its focus. The only antagonist in the play is time. The older members of the community, especially the Stage Manager, talk about enjoying the simple pleasures, the sun rising, the sound of the factory or the children playing. In the last scene Emily, dead, returns for a moment to life and is struck by the way the living move through life without stopping to notice and enjoy it. The play asks, ?If one spends a lifetime working towards having a farm, a wife and children and then doesn?t stop to enjoy it every moment, then what is the point?? The young characters while living are concerned only with living life and moving through it along the path they see before them. As Emily puts it ?We don?t have time to look at one another.?
The idea comes that like the, Stage Manager, Thornton Wilder is writing this play as a way to record the life he knew for others to experience in the future. Though 100 years or so have passed since this play was set the story it tells still happens everyday. People still do not stop to enjoy life. This has become truer in the computer age. My mother has proposed a production of the play set in a small present day town. This would lead to devices such as Emily and George?s conversation across windows being an instant message chat, or text messages. Advertisements would surround the stage throughout most of the show, sometimes distracting the characters from their action. While I think my mother?s idea is interesting, I have my own. Wilder calls for the play to be produced with almost no set, just a few functional pieces brought out as needed. I think that this play could be powerfully done on location. I propose using a churchyard with a graveyard around. The first two acts would be performed on a stage with a solid black background, mostly hiding the graveyard. There would still be some graves visible as an ever-present reminder to the audience that they are in a graveyard. The Stage Manager can use the graves when discussing who will die and when and why. The staging in the first two acts would be basically as written with a special emphasis placed on the small details that make people and life wonderful. The way the women snap beans for example could lead to a subtle rhythm that will build up to the Stage Manager?s interruption. For the last act the black backdrop will be removed and the scene will be played in the graveyard itself, with dead people sitting on or near actual graves. The graveyard I?m envisioning is at Grace Church in St. Francisville, LA. At night the graves can be beautifully lit from the trees providing lots of options for mood adjustment. If the night is clear there will also be a brilliant sky full of stars for the dead and the audience to marvel at. The night sky is one of those small things that too often go unappreciated. This setting would also provide for opportunities in environmental theatre and further experimentation with the selective realism the play is written for. This play will be most effective if directed with careful attention to detail and a fearlessness of improvisation. Many of the scenes are relatively pedestrian at first glance, but a little digging can reveal a wealth of subtlety.
The mood-image for this play is a single figure standing in a graveyard looking up at the stars. The tempo is most important and must be similar to a church service or a hymn, reverent, joyful and spontaneous. The biggest challenge with the play, for a director, is to keep it from becoming overly pedestrian or boring. Since the subject matter is often relatively plain the director must work to bring out the beauty of this ?plain? moments in life.
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