The weather is cold, and the ground covered with snow. So, I stayed indoors, and watched Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, a DVD of the 2003 Westport Country Playhouse version, featuring 75 year old Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. The show then went to Broadway for a limited two month run.
“Our Town” was written in 1938 by Wilder, and won him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It has been produced any number of times, including probably thousands of high school productions. Why this is, I am not sure, except that (a) there is nothing particularly offensive in the play, (b) it requires a fairly large cast, and (c) it eschews scenery and props, meaning that it is perfect for low budget productions.
The play takes place in the years 1901-1910, in the mythical small town (population approximately 3000) of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. There is a focus on two families, one headed by the editor of the local newspaper, the other by a local physician. They each have a teenage child (one a boy, one a girl) who have been long time neighbors and decide, right after graduation, to get married, as was the common practice in Grover’s Corners. The girl, Emily, was a very good student and could have continued her academic career, but her young man, George, only wanted to work for, and then take over, his uncles farm. They move to the farm.
Nine years, and two acts, later, tragedy strikes. Emily dies in childbirth and is buried in the town cemetery, on the hill overlooking the town. There she meets other residents of Grover’s Corner who have passed away, many since the first act of the play nine years earlier, who get to enjoy eternity away from the ups and downs (where the downs seem to outnumber the ups) of life. Emily does get her wish to return to life, unseen, for just one day – she picks a day 19 years earlier, but can’t stay the entire day, because her emotions overcome her. It is not clear to me what the cause of her emotional reaction was; it was not nostalgia. It was suggested that it was because she, and only she, knows the future. It has been suggested that it is because she sees out quickly life passes and how much time is spent on trivial matters. But I don’t think the play is clear on this point.
Although critics may disagree on the details of what Wilder was trying to say, they do agree that he did a very good job showing American daily life in a small town at the turn of the 20th century. Whether this is a “feel good” look at America, or a “critical” look at America can be the subject of a fuller discussion.
The 2003 production, by the way, is quite good. The cast is strong, Newman ties it together, and the stage production is filmed without the show looking too wooden. There was an earlier film version (1940) and another version done for television, with Hal Holbrook, in 1977.
Several weeks ago, we attended a production not of “Our Town”, but of “Our Suburb”, at Theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center, a play by playwright Darrah Cloud, which has many similarities to “Our Town”. But the similarities are limited to the format and staging – Cloud has taken the structure of “Our Town” (bare stage, stage crew putting things together, stage manager, no scenery, limited props, two neighbor families, two teenagers in love, tragedy), but not at all the modality or tone of “Our Town”.
“Our Town” takes place in “everytown” – Grover’s Corners could be any small town, anywhere in the country. “Our Suburb” takes place in the 1970s in Skokie, Illinois, and could not take place anywhere else or at any other time. “Our Town” has no extraordinary events – nothing particular is happening in Grover’s Corners, and the residents of Grover’s Corners don’t seem to care about anything happening anywhere else. It is the repetitive daily live, the quotidian events that take place as time passes, that make “Our Town” what it is. In a sense, timeless (or seemingly timeless to residents, who don’t understand what time is until it is too late, and they are dead and only able to sit and stare with their friends in the burial yard).
The characters in “Our Suburb” do not exist in an existential timeless condition. They clearly know what time is. Yes, the two teenagers in “Our Suburb” fall in love and talk about a future together which will never occur. But they do it while tensions build around them from an external event – the determination by a group of neo-Nazis to stage a march through Skokie, which has more Holocaust survivors than perhaps any where else in the country – and because one of them is Jewish, and one is not.
Other things happen in “Our Suburb” that don’t happen in “Our Town”. One of the fathers has a heart attack, and is unable to continue to operate his business. The other set of parents are having serious marital difficulties. So, in “Our Suburb”, we cope with Nazis, Holocaust survivors, marital problems, religious differences, serious illness, nothing like the “one day is just like another” existence of Wilder’s make believe community.
And, to put the topping on the cake, Emily’s death in “Our Town” is (I believe) a child-birth death. The young girl in “Our Suburb”, on the other hand, does not die a natural death, but rather is attacked and raped and murdered by, of all things, a driver of a public bus, late at night, when she is the only passenger. Again, the tone of one play is so different from the tone of the other, even if the structures are parallel.
This is not meant to be a review of “Our Suburb”. Cloud clearly tells an interesting and an important story. But whether or not her story fits the “Our Town” template can be again a topic of longer discussion.
But perhaps there is a way to connect the stories. Skokie in the 1970s was filled with tension, not only because of the proposed march through town, but because so much seemed to be changing, the lives of the characters seem to be so much in transition. No one was living like their parents lived, and no one would expect that their children would live as they live.
How different it was in Grover’s Corners in 1901, when people seemed to repeat the lives of the parents and when all assumed (wrongly of course) that the lives of the succeeding generation would not be that different from that of their parents.
Two very different Americas. Is one tending towards the other? And, if so, today in 2014, which represents the future? Unfortunately, I think we know.