There is no more trusty an old nugget than Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Many of us endured the reading of it in 8th or 9th grade. I don’t recall when I read it, but it was not easy going. Whatever your opinion of the play, it is likely based on ancient history. There is nothing like a great stage production of Our Town to make a person a believer. Portland Center Stage will make you one with its stunning production of the Pulitzer Prize winner running now through October 11 on the Gerding Theatre’s main stage.
Like many of the best things in life, Our Town is simple. Or at least it appears that way. Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, in 1901, population 2640. (Snore. I grew up in such a place.) In the first act, Stage Manager (Shawn Fagan) walks us through all the facts and figures, the locations of various points of interest, and the town characters–in particular, two families, the Gibbses and the Webbs. (I honestly think this is where Wilder lost me long ago. It was too familiar. Small town Americana just doesn’t change that much over the decades.)
From Daily Life we move into Love and Marriage, and the final act, Death and Dying. In case you were wondering, there are no spoilers in Our Town.
So what makes this a great play in 2015? Let’s start with great directing. Rose Riordan nails it. Timing. Humor. The perfect innocence and honesty of the characters. She and the cast not only capture some of life’s sweetest moments, but also make them ours.
Simplicity. Imagine a set of just chairs and ladders, basic turn-of-the-century costumes, imaginative lighting. No furniture, no stoves, no props. No distractions.
Irony. Wilder does not hesitate to remark upon the times, where “women vote indirect”, there is “social injustice”, “industrial inequality”, and “the lazy and quarrelsome sink to the bottom”.
But the play is the thing–a play about ordinary lives in an ordinary place at an ordinary time in our history. It is a play about who we were and who we are. And there is something eternal about that concept that, while it may be lost on most 8th graders, was not lost on the 1938 Pulitzer committee. This is a timeless play about how we deal with life, all of it–ordinary, sweet, tragic. How we find our places in this life, and in Our Town, has the opportunity to be at once ordinary and spiritual.