I’ll admit, I had some trepidations about going to see Our Town. It’s such an old chestnut of a play, sedimented (for many of us, I suspect, and certainly for myself) with memories of a first reading or viewing in junior high school, when we likely most connected with Rebecca Gibbs’s amazed recounting of the address on the letter that zooms out from the micro of Grover’s Corners to the macro of the “mind of God.” I feared I would find the play clichéd, treacly, sentimental, cloying, old-fashioned, out-of-date, irrelevant, or – god forbid – just uninteresting. I’m happy to report that the Public’s production of the play is none of these; on the contrary, under Ted Pappas’s restrained direction, the large ensemble renders Thornton Wilder’s classic in an engaging and wry manner.
Watching the play after many years’ distance from it, I was struck by how much it is, really, not a play at all: there is virtually no conflict, and what plot there is bases itself on the rhythms of the passage of life (people get born, they play, they talk, they eat, they marry, they gossip, they die…). Since so little happens, the temptation to make too much hay of small moments, to nostalgize or glorify the past, must surely be strong. The Public’s production rightly resists this temptation, maintaining a simplicity and straightforwardness that is important to the play’s emotional and intellectual payoff. The first two acts of the play need to spool out, as they do here, as a series of ordinary, unremarkable moments in order for the final act to hit home: it’s the utter nondramaticness of these little lives that makes so powerful and affecting Wilder’s third act exploration of the impossibility of grasping the preciousness of life while we live it.
Because the play demands minimal scenery (remember the ladders?), the Public is in a position to put its budgetary resources into an excellent (and very large!) ensemble made up of mostly local talent. Anchoring the production is Tom Atkins, who is terrific as the Stage Manager; he strikes just the right tone of dry humor and authority, moving the proceedings along with a pace and manner that undercuts the play’s occasional veer towards sentimentality or nostalgia.
I could wish for a production of this play that – especially in our current political environment, where a small minority are holding the country hostage seemingly out of a yearning for “good old days” that either never were, or only “were” for a very select set of people – let us see more of the frayed edges that we know skirt the borders of places like Grovers Corners. Pappas misses the opportunity his smidgeon of nontraditional casting might have opened for such a skantwise view, positing instead a utopia where, in 1901, an African-American milkman (Wali Jamal) and his Caucasian wife would be invited without the slightest hesitation or social frisson to the wedding of offspring of two of the town’s more prominent citizens. By asking us to pretend that racial frictions do not exist in “our town,” the production participates in the kind of nostalgic lie that its simplicity otherwise successfully avoids, and it feels like something of a betrayal, to boot. For to paper over those frictions is to pander to those conservative forces that dream of taking us back to imagined days of harmony whose imagining depends on forgetting that the idyllic quality of life in places like Grover’s Corners was made possible by the disenfranchisement and second-class citizenship of huge swaths of the population (including women, minorities, Jews, gays, and all sorts of categories of swarthy Europeans). It would, however, take something more than playing the script “straight” to crack open such a view.