Like more than a few of us, I suspect, I had never seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s one of those classic texts that it’s easy to be pretty sure we know all about without bothering to see it. I do recall reading it aloud, round-robin style, in English class in 11th grade. A budding literary sophisticate, I scorned much of it, and I can still remember my main objections: its normative assumptions about what makes for “regular folks” in the good ol’ U.S. of A. seemed to me not only dated but insufferably corny. If you went to school any time after 1964, it was simply too hard to accept a town that’s all-white, and where the “other” is signified by Polish Catholics across the train tracks. Sure, the actual setting of the play is the end of the 19th century to the eve of World War I (and it was first produced in the era of fascist sympathies pre-WWII), and Wilder is quite aware that the world he is depicting was already history. Still, for any child of the Sixties, the play was simply too retrograde, its fond evocation of how parents repeat themselves in offspring just, y’know, Squaresville, man. And that’s one of the things about Our Town—it tends to, and is intended to, inspire thoughts about how time passes and about the changes and the sames of ye olde status quo. There’s a priceless moment where the elderly presider over the local soda fountain reminisces about how it was once possible for a dog to take a nap in the middle of Main Street in the middle of the afternoon, undisturbed. Ah, the good old days—now there’s horses and carriages everywhere and even those encroaching horseless carriages! While no one in a contemporary audience would remember anything like that, we all have similar recollections that date us. Who still remembers milk delivered to the door? Newspapers routes? Wilder wrote the play not to preserve the past, conservatively, but to show that whatever we know as “normal” is going to go the way of all flesh right into the graveyard, eventually.
Which is a way of saying: Don’t judge a play by its first Act. Sure, Our Town starts homey enough to fit squarely in some kind of Will Rogers-type recollection about what life was like when everyone in town knew everyone else’s ancestors, but by the end it has let in the space of the beyond. Back before outer space was the answer to our striving beyond the quotidian earth, it was possible to let “eternity” be the common Unknown looming over us all, and Wilder does a good job of bringing the time beyond time into the play—by making it just as homely and familiar, but with a key difference. The dead know what we don’t know, and what they know reveals at last what has been implicit all along: the perspective of the Stage Manager is “from beyond the grave”—like poets and saints, seeing the length of an individual human life as the speck in the span of the ages that it is.
The New Haven Theater Company’s production, directed by Steven Scarpa, in a spare playing space in a big, high-ceiling room at the English Building Market, its set consisting of two groups of three chairs and a quartet of black monoliths that look like pillars holding up the sky and like monuments to the dead, gives us a straight-forward rendering of Wilder’s script that lets us appreciate how much specificity there is in the play’s seemingly generic approach. Grover’s Mill is a town with an identity, and it's great the way the NHTC production lets us imagine the town the way the play wants us to.
Helping greatly with that task is our Stage Manager (Megan Chenot). Rather than the usual benign old codger who is supposed to keep us apprized of the whos and whats of the town, Chenot has the fresh forthrightness of those tour guides you might see leading a bunch of prospectives, their families, and random shutterbugs around Yale’s campus. She’s got the skinny on everything and delivers it all with the kind of amused forbearance we expect from grade school teachers. It’s like the whole town is her “class” (us too) and she wants to lead them along the path to greater knowledge, no matter how painful it may be. Chenot creates a very warming, reassuring effect, and that helps, particularly as there’s likely to be much sniffling and wiping of eyes by the time Act Three ends.
Other reflection on this well-cast show—special mention of the perfect match of Mallory Pellegrino for the role of Emily Webb. The heart of the play comes in Act Two when Emily and George Gibbs, the boy next-door, finally realize what their lives have been leading to. Pellegrino shows just the right mix of bashfulness and smart-girl knowingness not only to win over George—the town’s top athlete, bound for agricultural college—but everyone else as well. It’s a moment that seems so sincere and intimate it justifies everything the Stage Manager is trying to show us.
Other fine touches from this familiar ensemble: Margaret Mann’s comic turns as a professor eager to take us back to the Pleistocene in explaining the town’s interest, and as everyone’s maiden aunt in the wedding scene, gushing with the kind of fulsomeness that makes cliché both comical and real; Christian Shaboo, as George, seems young enough to be as unselfconscious as George is; George Kulp and Susan Kulp play the Webbs with a familiarity that seems as if we’re actually in their home, and the awkward, prenuptial visit of George to his future father-in-law is comic, and almost lets in lots of things best left unsaid; as Doc Gibbs and his wife, J. Kevin Smith and Deena Nicol have a more weary hominess than the Webbs—with the Doctor having to make housecalls (who remembers that ancient custom?), and his wife fantasizing about a trip to Paris as though it were on the other side of the earth; the families’ breakdown at the graveyard feels genuine rather than stagey, a big plus; Peter Chenot, as deliveryman-about-town Howie Newsome, is as real as the imaginary (to us) carthorse he leads around.
Perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of Wilder’s play is when George and Emily, in their respective bedrooms in their respective parents’ next-door houses, try to set up a means of surreptitious communication, if only to study together. Do we need look any further for an early version of the urge to text and share files? And when the Stage Manager comments on the fact that most people end their lives married, it’s a rather obvious reflection that—in these parts, anyway—more people than ever, even those who eschew heterosexual coupling, have that opportunity.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, I reckon.
Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Steven Scarpa Produced by George Kulp Production Design by Drew Gray Stage Management by Mary Tedford
Cast (in order of appearance): Megan Chenot; J. Kevin Smith; Sam Taubl; Peter Chenot; Deena Nicol; Susan Kulp; Christian Shaboo; Josie Kulp; Spenser Long; Mallory Pellegrino: Margaret Mann; George Kulp; Donna E. Glen; Erich Greene; Jim Lones; Rick Beebe; Jesse Jo Toth
English Building Market 839 Chapel Street
2013, September 19, 20, 21; 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.