Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Our Town - Royal George Theatre - Shaw Festival

"Does anyone ever realize life while they live it "

Our Town
Kate Besworth as Emily Webb and Charlie Gallant as George Gibbs in Our Town. Photo by David Cooper

The problem I experienced with Shaw's rendition of Our Town, the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Thornton Wilder was the fact that it was so Norman Rockwell in appearance - so white, so Anglo-Saxon and so Protestant (although the Catholic church does get mentioned briefly at the start).

Benedict Campbell as Stage Manager with the cast of Our Town. Photo by David Cooper Via an impersonal "stage manager," Wilder tells the story of the inhabitants of the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, population 2,642, from 1901-1913. The stage manager is Benedict Campbell, the narrator, commentator, and our guide. He joins in the action of the play periodically as the minister at the wedding, the soda shop owner, a local townsmen, etc., and he speaks directly to Emily Webb after her death. Campbell is solid, his booming voice resonating with the command and the gravitas required for such a role.

Campbell even provides the coordinates of Grover's Corners as 42°40' north latitude and 70°37' west longitude (which is actually Massachusetts). But the depiction of the everyday lives of these citizens could have been taken to a brand new and higher level, enhanced with diversity and colour. After all, the message remains the same no matter what the time period - wake up and smell the roses, people, aka seize the day!

Kate Besworth plays Emily Webb, one of the main characters whom we follow from a bright young girl through her wedding at 17 to George Gibbs and her early death. Besworth is amazing as a young adolescent, full of enthusiasm, confidence (but not too much at the wedding), vigor and the perfect match for Charlie Gallant's George Gibbs, the other main character, the boy literally a few steps or leaps next door, a kind but reckless teenager who matures over time and becomes a responsible husband, father and farmer. Their chemistry is wonderful to watch particularly knowing that the two actors were married last year.

Patrick Galligan is Frank Gibbs, George's father, and the town doctor, while Patrick McManus is Charles Webb, Emily's father, and editor of the Grover's Corners Sentinel. Both are solid in their Our Town small roles as are the two ladies, Catherine McGregor as Julia, George's mother who dreams of going to Paris, but doesn't get there, saving $350 for the trip from the sale of an antique furniture piece, but ultimately willing it to George and Emily. Jenny L Wright plays Myrtle Webb, Emily's mother, and these four are typical of Shaw's deep talent pool.

There are many secondary characters including a reliable policeman, a dependable milkman who delivers what appear to be heavy bottles of milk with an imaginary horse named Bessie, an alcoholic choir director and several younger gad about children.

Ken MacDonald fashions a blank canvas set design, utilizing immaculate white ladders to create archways into the Gibbs and Webb homes, and oversized white stepladders for Emily and George's upstairs bedrooms. The play is performed on this sparse set, an almost-bare stage, and with few exceptions, the actors pantomime their daily actions without the use of props, an appropriate device given that they are all merely putting in the motions to begin with, not realizing the Zen of each moment.

Wilder called Our Town his favorite work, but complained that it was rarely done right, insisting that it "should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness - simply, dryly, and sincerely." He once said, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind - not in things, not in 'scenery.' "

Director Molly Smith gets all of that right, and her superb cast delivers an outstanding performance, Campbell time-shifting us from present to past and vice versa, the first act quite slow, even tedious, but afterwards gathering momentum when we arrive in acts two and three with first marriage and then death, the latter uniquely performed at a cemetery where we learn that amongst the others residing in the crowded cemetery, Billy Lake's young paper boy died in France in World War I, Peter Millard's choir director hanged himself, Robert Markus's Wally Webb, Emily's younger, brother died of a burst appendix on a Boy Scout camping trip, and that's simply that - they are simply gone, their names merely scratched off the program by the unemotional Campbell.

It is here that Besworth (who dies during childbirth) pleads to go back just once, return to life to experience a normal, happier time, her 12th birthday to be precise, even though she is sternly warned against it by her graveyard companions.

As Campbell accommodates her request, Emily looks about, troubled by the realization that the living do not realize the beauty around them, and she utters this moving speech: "I can't. I can't go on. Oh! Oh. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back - up the hill - to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, good-bye, world. Good-bye Grover's Corners - and Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking - and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee, and new-ironed dresses and hot baths - and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

She understands that going back was a mistake. At the end, Emily asks, "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it... every, every minute?"

Running time is approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes including one intermission. Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Molly Smith. Until Oct. 15 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake. or 905-468-2172

The instructive program notes follow -

Director's Notes by Molly Smith
Our Town is a quiet masterpiece. Long recognized as one of the most important plays in the American canon, Thornton Wilder's story of a small town at the turn of the last century continues to reverberate.

He was a radical playwright: employing flashbacks and a spare stage with minimal props, he tells his story through a stage manager who takes us through life from birth to death. Radical too in content because his story is about ordinary people, not kings and queens, and he was one of the first American playwrights to do so. I knew the ideal company for Our Town is the Shaw Company. They are truthful to the bone, emotionally deep and brilliant with language.

When Suzanne, my partner, and I pulled into Niagara-on-the-Lake for rehearsals and ate our first breakfast at the Stagecoach, it struck me. Ah, this is Our Town. The no-nonsense attitude of the
people, this small town where everybody knows everybody else. So many feelings and sensations came over me. I've been coming here for over a decade, first to see work and then to direct musicals with this superb company.

A moment of sadness rushed over me too - about Jackie Maxwell - as this is her final season here. I knew I wanted to be here to celebrate it with her. She is one of the best Artistic Directors in North America - creative, canny about programming, inventive, so bright, so funny and a terrific director. Being Artistic Director of a huge company is not for the faint of heart and Jackie comes to it with her Irish humour and tenacious drive. I can only imagine how much you will miss her. I needed to be here to experience this moment in time.

There are so many reasons why Our Town is one of the greatest American plays. It's plainspoken and is a deep meditation on love, family, marriage and death. Taking place in New Hampshire at the turn of the century, Our Town is the story of a community of people who are unsentimental, practical and grounded. They are ordinary people in the extraordinary moment of being alive.

The idea of meditation and simplicity became important for us with our remarkable design team and in rehearsing the play. We were moved by the ease, simplicity and depth of the story. As Mr. Webb says: "No ma'am, there isn't much culture; but maybe this is a place to tell you that we've got a lot of pleasures of a kind here: we like the sun comin' up over the mountain in the morning and we all notice a great deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of the seasons; yes, everybody knows about them." As a group, we've loved working on this play - each day the play revealed itself to us in firebombs and tiny moments like a leaf falling.

If we succeed with this play, it will be because we are living every moment fully on stage. As Emily says at the end of the play: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?"

Oh yes, we aim to try.

Home Away from Home
by Jacob Gallagher-Ross

Thornton Wilder wrote on the move. He liked to say that he measured his progress on the page by the daily walks he took while thinking about it - so many words to the mile. The physical motion helped him keep his ideas mobile, too. As he once put it in his journals: Having always "got" my writing on long walks I have learned to prevent its solidifying, its "jelling" in my head; always when the moment of writing comes it is ready for that moment's novelty, excitement, and surprise.

Though we often identify him with the deceptively homey setting of Our Town, his masterpiece, Wilder was a nomad for most of his life: fleeing the blandishments of literary fame to find the solitude he craved abroad, or in remote locations. During the writing of Our Town in 1937-38, he crisscrossed Europe, spending extended sojourns in France, Switzerland - any place, it seemed, but his native New England. As Penelope Niven, one of his most perceptive biographers, puts it, Wilder "had to get away from home in order to be himself."

It's important to keep this restlessness in mind, because we have a tendency to think of Wilder - through the darkened glass of decades of critical misreading - as a kind of homebody, a dramatic Norman Rockwell. Generations of high school productions of Our Town have blazoned that image on our collective psyche. But the more we look for the idealized, cozy, version of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire we've been accustomed to expect, the less likely we are to find it. If we look carefully, what we do find is constant motion - not cozy happiness but ambivalence, anxiety, and loss. For Wilder, home is somewhere you leave, whether you want to or not.

In the early 1930s, Wilder wrote three short plays - Pullman Car Hiawatha, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner - that were all, in their own ways, rough sketches for Our Town. All three rehearse the stripped-bare stage that is so much a part of Our Town's effect. Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Happy Journey feature the mediating presence of a Stage Manager figure. While working on early versions of the play that became Our Town, Wilder considered having a "long Christmas dinner" comprise the play's second act. These short works, even more explicitly than Our Town, unite the staging of everyday events with constant motion: Pullman Car Hiawatha takes place on a speeding overnight train; The Happy Journey takes a New Jersey family on a car trip crowded with quotidian epiphanies; and The Long Christmas Dinner - which is very short - turns time into space, squeezing a century into a single meal.

In Our Town, neither Wilder's people, nor his setting, can stay still. Each entrance is haunted by an exit; each moment of joy is shadowed by pain. No sooner does the Stage Manager announce new characters than he vaults ahead to their eventual deaths, reminding us that everything we're seeing is an artifact of an ever-more distant past. Emily and George's courtship might appear to be the image of bygone bobby-sox romance, but the halting confession of their flowering affection is accompanied by tears, fear and profound uncertainty, a premonition of more final departures.

This constant traffic is only the most literal sign of the play's preoccupation with movement. The Stage Manager reminds us that he's seen it all before: that the urgent human striving we see before us is simply part of the passing show, impossibly tiny when set against the backdrop of eternity, the remorseless transit of the universe. (Wilder once compared the action of the play to a telescope tracking a vanishing object.) The play's three acts cycle through one day - a morning, an afternoon, a chilly evening - dispersed across years, and spanning the hallmarks of entire lives: departures, homecomings, marriages and, especially, deaths.

Three years pass between acts one and two, hurtling past during the intermission. The play multiplies speed between the second and third acts, when nine years elapse. Despite the Stage Manager's ironic assertion that "things don't change much around here," we watch the whole onstage society transform.

The more time we spend with the characters on stage, in other words, the further they move away from us. Everything that seems so permanent about Our Town - the stolid New England values, the precious local traditions, the sense of being rooted in a precise landscape and culture - is entirely temporary, a blip on the geological radar. Wilder isn't evoking the timelessness of small-town life; he's reminding us that everything solid melts away into time, as the theatrical performance before us is already doing. This is what he means when he describes watching Our Town as a kind of archaeology, as he does in his essays about the play: even as he asks spectators to restore sensory vividness to bygone experience, he's also reminding us to think of everything we see on stage as already part of the past - and to imagine how future generations will see our own moment, from an equally distanced remove.

Foregrounding this aspect of Wilder's work is the best antidote to accusations of nostalgia. Grover's Corners is not being brought closer by its theatrical revival, it's becoming more remote. It's vital to remember Emily's plangent realization from the play's final act: "It goes so fast," she says, "We don't have time to look at one another." These lines apply as much to the theatrical situation's focused kind of looking as to everyday life's more vagrant glances. What would it mean to really see each other? Is it even possible?

Because the play is always accelerating - hurtling from departure to departure - it's especially important to note the intervals where Wilder slows down, and allows his characters to, quite literally, smell the flowers: to savour the aroma of a garden, to gaze at a glowing moon. In these moments, we're united with the people onstage - seeing as they see, noticing their world as they do, conjuring up similar sights and smells from our own memories.

The act of attempting to retrieve such sensory figments prepares the way for the devastating scene of Emily's impossible return to her past in the third act. It's remarkable how often she says that she's "forgotten" or "didn't know" things in this section, which is supposedly devoted to a happy return to the familiar. What she sees, in fact, is how much she didn't see the first time around. Throughout Our Town, Wilder's pantomimed settings make the murmur of routine that underwrites everyday life invisible: the audience must cognitively fill in the blanks in order to see breakfast being prepared, milk being delivered, beans strung for canning, chickens fed.

Seeing these routines in motion, pushed into relief against an absent backdrop, tells us something about everyday life and about history that factual records never could. We all carry out daily procedures that are like these in their routineness (even if we don't can beans ourselves), and these habits are at once the quantum structure of history - generations of lived human experience - and the texture we lose to memory's vagaries. This is the primal paradox about everyday perception that Wilder's play is artfully constructed to confront.

Wilder contrasts the pace of perception, the fragile grasp of consciousness on the world, with the heedless progress of cosmic time. As he does, he invites us to think about the smallness and the bigness of our own minds: no one will ever see the play again in quite the same way that we do, but thousands have seen it before, and thousands will see it again. As Wilder once put it in a preface: "Every action which has ever taken place - every thought, every emotion - has taken place only once, at one moment in time and place."

Our Town is only ours because it's already gone.

The Author
Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) novelist, playwright and scholar, was born in Madison, Wisconsin, the surviving member of a set of twin boys. He was the second of five children of a political scientist and diplomat, and from age seven grew up in the Far East as well as in California where he participated in school drama productions. He attended Oberlin College and Yale University, where some of his early writings were published in college literary magazines.

In 1921, Wilder began teaching French at a boys' school in Princeton, New Jersey and in the summers he would escort student groups on trips to Europe. There, he met a variety of writers and socialites and this became the basis of his first novel, The Cabala (1926). After its publication, he took a break from teaching, completed a Master's degree in French at Princeton University, did some more travelling in Europe, and had his first play produced, The Trumpet Shall Sound (1926) staged by Richard Boleslavsky and the American Laboratory Theatre. His second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), was a sensational success, winning Wilder the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes and providing him with the financial means to give up teaching.

In the next two decades, with only three major plays and a handful of one-acts, Wilder gained a place as one of the most important playwrights America has ever produced. Our Town was first staged on January 22, 1938 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. It was a one-time performance before the show moved to Henry Miller's Theater in New York for its official opening on February 4,1938. That play and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), both also achieved surprising, popular success, running on Broadway for more than 350 performances each, and winning for Wilder two more Pulitzer Prizes. Wilder's third major play The Matchmaker (1954), a revision of his 1938 farce The Merchant of Yonkers, became the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! (1964).

Wilder enjoyed close friendships with writers Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and actors Montgomery Clift and Ruth Gordon. He occasionally acted in his plays, notably in the Broadway production of Our Town when he played the Stage Manager for two weeks. Later in his career, Wilder lectured on American literature, wrote scholarly works on Emily Dickinson and Lope de Vega, and wrote another prize-winning novel, The Eighth Day (1967). He continued writing plays and novels until his death in New Haven, Connecticut, at the age of 78.

Molly Smith, director of Our Town talks with Morris Panych - runtime 1hr 24 min.

The people behind the curtain - photos courtesy Shaw Festival
Molly Smith
Molly Smith
Ken Macdonald
Ken MacDonald
Set Designer
William Schmuck
William Schmuck
Costume Designer
Kimberly Purtell
Kimberly Purtell
Lighting Designer
James Smith
James Smith
Original Music and Sound Designer
Allan Teichman
Allan Teichman
Stage Manager
Leigh McClymont
Leigh McClymont
Assistant Stage Manager

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