Review: Our Town by University of Texas Theatre & Dance
by Michael Meigs
I've married over two hundred couples in my day. . . .
M . . . marries N . . . . millions of them.
The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will --
Once in a thousand times it's interesting.
[He now looks at the audience for the first time, with a warm smile that removes any sense of cynicism from the next line.]
Well, let's have Mendelssohn's "Wedding March"!
There's a deceptive simplicity to Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
It is, after all, a play about ordinary people in a small town. Nobodies. Or, rather, Everybodies.
I encountered it early in the second half of the twentieth century because it was included in its entirety in the high school English textbook. For eleventh grade. Maybe twelfth grade. No big words. No controversy. In fact, not much drama. Boy and girl meet, court, marry, look back over their lives and the story ends in a quiet graveyard on a high hill under the wild stars.
Staging something this simple and yet this profound takes a lot of insight. Director Marie Brown has done a lot of things right, the chief of which was the decision to entrust Tom Truss with the role of the stage manager.
Truss calmly dominates the deliberately indefinite theatrical space of Grover's Corners. He has physical presence and vocal authority. He's just somber enough, with a twinkle not far away; and he has some years on him. Wilder makes the Stage Manager omniscient for this world, a chorus-cum-character who steps back from the banalities of everyday life just enough to remind us to see ourselves in them.
Wilder calls for a bare stage at the beginning, furnished subsequently only by a few tables and chairs. Director Brown chose to define the theatrical space instead as a casual exhibit space, provided with a few display cases like those in the lobby outside. Mostly under glass were displayed faded mementos from the early twentieth century -- photos, household objects, artifacts. Ordinary wooden chairs dangled from exposed ropes that were tied off along the rear of the playing area.
Establishing the stage space as an extension of the pre-opening audience space carried a useful message. Less apropos, to my mind, was the director's decision to populate that space with the full cast in contemporary dress, milling about for ten minutes as the audience made its way to its seats. Mind you, that movement did lure some of us to examine the displays before us, including especially the sizable papier-mâché model of the town. Prim theatre ushers stood next to the exhibits, seeing that we kept our hands to ourselves.
On one block of neutral color lay two open books. The first was an didactic essay on moral behavior, appropriate for fireside reading, and the second was Goethe's Faust, in German, turned to a dramatic passage of choral response -- a gnomic choice indecipherable to most of us.
The cast dispersed gradually, leaving Truss and a handful of others there. He and they turned it into the sacred space of theatre, taking minor props from one case -- a hairbow, for example -- and then pushing the exhibits off into stage darkness. One by one, chairs were lowered. The Stage Manager unhooked them and positioned them as he began to address us.
The Stage Manager orients us to the town and its history, at one point callling in a professor from the local college to provide a comic, fuzzy academic overview. Action begins pre-dawn, with meetings on the street of the paperboy, the milkman accompanying an imaginary horse, the constable, and Dr. Gibbs, just back from delivering twins "down in Polish town." Our Town offers us two families -- those of Dr. Gibbs and of newspaper editor Webb -- to encapsulate the human experience.
As Wilder writes in an introduction,
"Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death. . . . It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and space. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are 'hundreds,' 'thousands,' and 'millions.' Emily's joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents -- what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living, and who will live? Each individual's assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner."
UT uses a cast of 24 to present this story, far too many to cite individually in this review. Some are very good, indeed. Favorites for me were Cassie Stewart at the intently matter-of-fact Mrs. Gibbs, Michael Guy Bowman as the bleak, drunken choirmaster Simon Stimson, and Matrex Kilgore as editor Webb, particularly effective when momentarily trapped in the kitchen with his future son-in-law on the morning of the wedding. Will Brittain as George Gibbs, the future groom, delivers a particularly nuanced performance. Brittain succeeds in portraying an admired, manly and thoroughly ordinary young man in the very difficult moments of having to talk about emotions -- first, with Emily his prospective girlfriend, and later, with his mother in the panicked moments just before the wedding. Those situations, deeply serious, could easily have tipped into farce, but Brown and Brittain do not allow that to happen.
Sofia Ruiz as Emily is self-absorbed, exuberant and well-spoken throughout. In the third act Emily must look back upon her life, in communication with the spirits in the graveyard, and gain insight into the vital, precious nature of even life's smallest moments. I heard her words but I didn't perceive that inner shift -- the gathering calm of resignation and understanding.
That is perhaps explicable. As my silver-haired wife commented afteward, "But they're all young. How could they understand that yet?"
Emily asks a similar question in that final scene: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?"
Wilder, in the person of the Stage Manager, answers. "No. . . The saints and poets, maybe -- they do, some."
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