One of the central ironies of Thornton Wilder’s timeless “Our Town” is that high school drama clubs frequently stage it. The high schoolers love the play because it uses virtually no props – one aspect of Wilder’s genius was for getting people to rely on the words and not the richness of the scenery – and even the stingiest budget requires only old clothes and ingenuity to put on the show.
The irony is that the kids performing the play just as often miss its central theme of how perishable life is. High school kids believe they are immortal. It’s the playwright and the audience that knows they are not.
The Artists’ Exchange in Rolfe Square has renovated the space once inhabited by Gymboree at 82 Rolfe Square, one block down from its Black Box theatre at 50 Rolfe Square. They will use the extra space to create a second venue where their community of special adults can exercise their imagination.
They call the new space Theatre 82 and they have chosen “Our Town” for their first production. According to a news release, that immensely popular and important American play almost instantly came to mind:
“How might they celebrate the community they have called home for nearly 10 years? … They didn’t have to think for long. Thornton Wilder’s classic play ‘Our Town,’ celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is the story of a small community and the ordinary lives of its inhabitants, told with a sensitivity and quiet wisdom that ultimately captures the heart of the human experience and what connects us all.”
The Artists’ Exchange is a non-profit arts collaborative whose mission is to create an atmosphere in which creativity, learning and discovery converge and individuality is celebrated. Artists’ Exchange houses The Black Box Theatre and multiple art studios, as well as a gallery, art boutique and café. With programs in art, music and theatre, Artists’ Exchange offers enriching classes, birthday parties, and both weekly and monthly events.
The Artists’ Exchange and its artistic director, Rich Morra, thinks the play is a perfect fit for the members of their special community. Its message of universal humanity has been gathering audiences for 75 years and they believe people will want to see this very special Theatre 82 production.
They are not alone in their admiration for the play. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama when it was originally staged, a fact that many people, including the director of this latest production, tended to hold against it. How “serious” could it be if everyone likes it?
“It is a very popular story,” said Morra. “As we started working on the show, I had this view of it as a ‘meat and potatoes’ sort of project, but as we got into it, I realized how off I was about that. It is a masterly piece and very advanced for its time.”
What Morra and many more people have come to discover is that sometimes things become popular because they find the universal in the particular way Thornton Wilder found the heart of the world in Grover’s Corners.
The play explores the fictional lives of the Gibbs family, the Webb family and their neighbors in Grover's Corners, N.H. early in the 20th century (Don’t look for it on the map. Wilder made it a composite of several towns he knew in New Hampshire, and a studious fan once checked the latitude and longitude for Grover’s Corner and found it many miles off the Massachusetts coast, apparently submerged).
The stage is taken up by a few pieces of furniture. The directions call for actors to mime the everyday actions of their characters; the milkman leads an invisible horse, Mrs. Gibbs cooks on an imaginary stove. A “stage manager” takes the role of narrator, with no pretense of being impartial or un-opinionated. But he can be cold. At the very opening of the play, the paperboy comes on stage, does his business, and just as we are prepared to like the boy. The year we see Joe the paperboy was 1913 and the stage manager tells us he is a bright young man, went onto MIT and became an engineer; “Then the war came along … He died in France.”
Then we are introduced to George and Emily, the characters that resonate most with adolescents.
“Emily is much smarter than George, of course,” said Morra, “but George is much more confident and popular. It’s amazing how Wilder touches on the daily lives of people, how he means something universal no matter what year it is.”
In 2009, New York Times columnist and former drama critic Frank Rich pulled “Our Town” out of the high school auditorium and into the discussion of what America was and is really like.
“Wilder was not a nostalgic, sentimental or jingoistic writer. Grover's Corners isn't populated by saints, but by regular people, some frivolous and some ignorant and at least one suicidal. But when the narrator evokes a common national good and purpose – unfurling our country's full name in the rhetorical manner also favored by our current president – you feel the graveyard's chill wind. It's a trace memory of an American faith we soiled and buried with all our own nonsense in the first decade of our new century.”
In spite of Morra making the play a metaphor for the contemporary United States and a singularly American play, the work has been translated into at least 40 languages. According to Morra, and the Thornton Wilder site, the play is performed at least once a day somewhere in the world. It has been reported that the Soviet Union prevented an East German version of the play in Berlin for fear that it would set off a wave of suicide in 1946. Granted, the last scene plays out in a graveyard with the ghosts of Grover’s Corners, but it hardly prompts audiences to leave the theatre and go stand in traffic.
As the stage manager famously says:
“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars ... everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for 5,000 years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
A grand opening celebration on Friday, April 5 from 6 to 8 p.m., will open the space, complete with live music and a menu of drinks and pastries available at the in-house Characters Café. The party starts at 6 p.m. “Our Town” will begin at 8. If you’d care to stay for it, the evening will continue after the play with a visit from Bring Your Own Improv.
“Our Town” will run Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. (with the exception of the opening night performance) and Sundays at 2 p.m. until April 14. Tickets are $15. For reservations, visit Artists’ Exchange’s website at www.artists-exchange.org. > “Our Town” is presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc