Our Paradoxical Town
Peterborough's love of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is deep and historically rich
We all know the play, or think we do. We’ve all seen it or read it in high school or college. Even my children’s grade school staged it — never mind the difficulty of keeping the third grade extras from fidgeting in their cemetery chairs and finding a wise, avuncular, pipe-smoking 12-year-old to proclaim, “There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery.” (One of the arbors fell over.)
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is such good dramaturgy that that it can withstand the most clumsy stagecraft. It even withstood a 1940 Hollywood movie version starring William Holden and Martha Scott as George and Emily with an untoward happy ending where Emily doesn’t die after all. (An ending approved by Thornton Wilder himself, who perhaps thought movie audiences weren’t quite smart enough for the theatrical version.)
No matter what, we remember the power of the play. To use a metaphor baseball-loving George Gibbs would appreciate, it runs life’s bases. As the Stage Manager says in his prologue after the initial intermission, “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about.”
We remember the play’s power, but we tend to forget how difficult that power is to summon in its strongest form.
From August 4 through August 15, Tom Frey directed the venerable and celebrated Peterborough Players in a wonderful production of “Our Town.”
A sense of wonder is what the play creates when it’s done exactly right.
But Tom and the Players had a number of other things to wonder about before they got a chance to wonder about the plain yet confounding instructions author Thornton Wilder is said to have given: “‘Our Town’ should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness — simply, dryly, and sincerely.”
First there was the “dryly” issue. Due to Covid worries the play had to be out-doors. “Our Town” performed in a town experiencing the out-of-town weather of a monsoon season.
A small common was chosen, off Main Street between the Monadnock Center for History and Culture and the Guernsey Building. The latter is a remnant of an agricultural past. It once housed the American Guernsey Cattle Club. Thus the play was plopped down midst more yesteryear than Thornton Wilder, in his concern with eternity, meant to evoke.
Which lead to the “sentimentality”issue. “Our Town” performed downtown in the town that lays claim to being “Our Town.” The signs at the town line on Route 101 and Route 202 read, “Welcome to Our Town.” I don’t know if this causes “ponderousness” in the audience, but it could distract from “simply” and maybe even from “sincerely.”
The Peterborough Players addressed the problems deftly. Two performances were canceled by the weather, but an additional performance was squeezed in and, thanks to some frantic seating rearrangements by Advancement Director Beth Brown, staff and volunteers, everyone who bought a ticket got to see the play.
No proscenium stage could be built that would withstand the rain and wind. So Scenic Designer Charles Morgan created a backdrop from artfully stacked and jumbled crates, boxes, trunks, suitcases and so forth that blocked the view of Peterborough itself and could be covered with a tarp after the show.
The change from the traditionally stark “Our Town” set worked ingeniously. Instead of being in front of an almost empty place where everything is to be imagined, you were in front of an almost full space — a sort of attic of the mind — where everything is to be imagined.
As the characters were introduced and started to speak, the wall of storeroom clutter seemed to fade more from backdrop to background until the emptiness Wilder wanted on stage was achieved.
Part of the effect was also due to the brilliance, as it were, of Lighting and Sound Designer Kevin Frazier. He positioned the stage so that the First Act was in sunlight. Then, as the tone of the play darkened (which it does in the Second Act, sooner than you may recall), the shadow of the Guernsey Building began to fall across the stage until, by the Third Act, in the cemetery, the players were artificially illuminated in a way both eerie and appropriate.
Tom Frey’s ethnicity-blind casting came as a surprise, but only a very momentary one. We’re accustomed to regarding “Our Town” as a white bread play set in a white bread place and time. (Though, in fact, pre-sliced commercial white bread wasn’t introduced until 1928, long after the play’s time span of 1901 to 1913.)
A few seconds of seeing a mix of peoples on the stage was a reminder of the universality of the play, and a few more seconds had the viewer too engaged in that universality to take further notice.
Every player was perfect for the part.
Erick Pinnick lent Dr. Gibbs a faultless note of good-humored resignation. Aliah Whitmore portrayed Mrs. Gibbs with an exact touch of dreaminess mixed into her busy concerns. Tracey Conyer Lee, as Mrs. Webb, adopted the correct minor key of asperity to distinguish her busy concerns from those of Mrs. Gibbs. And Steven Michael Walters, as newspaper editor Mr. Gibbs, added bemusement — and amusement — to a play with comic moments that are too often ignored.
Young George Gibbs, who can seem feckless and empty-headed in the wrong hands, was provided with a beguiling sense of fun by K. P. Powell. Kate Kenney gave the young Emily Webb the radiant spark that’s so necessary if that spark is to be dimmed, which Kenney did with mastery in the last act. Together they shone in what may be (except for Emily’s last speech in the Third Act) the most difficult scene in the play.
In the Second Act, George and Emily fall in love at the soda fountain without saying so, even to themselves. It is not (unlike Emily’s last speech) Thornton Wilder’s strongest piece of writing. He seems to have had little, if any, romantic life of his own and appears to have been puzzled by adolescent emotion in a way that he wasn’t puzzled by any other human emotional condition. But Powell and Kenney pulled it off.
And Gordon Clapp cannot be over-praised for the job he did as Stage Manager. Clapp has a roster of stage, screen and TV credits longer than a list of 2021 rainy days. He is perhaps best known for 12 seasons as Detective Greg Medavoy on “NYPD Blue.” He policed himself carefully in the one law of being Stage Manager. He blended himself into the action of the play, never leaving the audience a chance to ponder (per the author’s worry about ponderousness), “Who is this guy? Why’s he there? What’s he doing?”
These are just a few of the questions that can nag an audience when “Our Town” isn’t acted and directed flawlessly. Not that they aren’t legitimate questions, but they shouldn’t arise in the middle of the action. They should haunt the audience after the Stage Manager says, “Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners … You get a good rest, too. Good night.”
I asked Tom Frey, “Why is a really good version of ‘Our Town’ so hard to do?”
He said, “It’s a play that’s weirdly resistant to acting.”
Each actor could be said to be balancing on a ball. A single sweeping “theatrical” gesture and equilibrium is lost. A tilt in one direction means a slip into bathos. A lean in another direction turns toward mawkishness. And any lurch rolls us into the perils of nostalgia.
“It’s not right to make it a museum piece,” said Frey. He pointed out how the actors were dressed (thank you, costume designer Jane Alois Stein) in clothing that was “non-period period,” to evoke a sense of other time rather than old-timey.
Thornton Wilder seems to have been trying to inoculate the play against nostalgia. The opening act of “Our Town” is set 37 years before it was first performed in 1938 and therefore was already in danger of being about the good old days.
But so many momentous — and calamitous — events marked the intervening years. The horrors of WWI, the disruption of manners and mores and shaky financial boom of the 1920s, the Great Depression, and the rise of war-mongering totalitarianism in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and Japan pushed 1901 into a certain “no place” that Wilder desired.
In his 1957 Preface to a collection of his plays Wilder wrote, “When you emphasize place in the theater, you drag down and limit and harness time to it. You thrust the action back into past time, whereas it is precisely the glory of the stage that it is always ‘now’ there.”
He also wrote that “the theatre is admirably fitted” to have “one foot planted in the particular … yet it tends and strains to exhibit a general truth.”
Grover’s Corners is no place in particular.
Wilder takes pains to make the town as humdrum as possible:
Stage Manager: Nice town, y’know what I mean?
Nobody very remarkable ever came out of it, s’far as we know.
And to show how limited the town’s horizons are:
Mrs. Gibbs: Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.
Pace as well as place is vital to “Our Town.” “It sneaks up on you if it’s done well,” said Tom Frey. “It’s cumulative.”
Moved along too quickly it becomes a “That’s Life” slide show. Too slowly and the humdrum becomes a drumbeat and the narrow horizons close in.
Which is the reason that it’s the only play I know where the intermissions are an integral part of the performance. Between going to the bathroom, getting a cold drink, and sneaking a smoke, each act has to be digested or the mind isn’t ready for the next.
“It’s a masterpiece,” said Tom. “Wilder gets there before we do. It’s always different.”
Different with every production, and different to every member of the audience. Sad, maybe, to the young. Admonishing to the middle-aged. And for those of us who are getting old it is, as Tom Frey put it, “Life-affirming in a rough-edged way.” But you can see “Our Town” any number of times at any period in life and have every one of those feelings and many more, sometimes (this time) all at once.
One thing that doesn’t change is Peterborough’s love of “Our Town.” Some local boosterism is involved, no doubt. Wilder spent time in June 1937 at Peterborough’s MacDowell Colony artists’ retreat and drew inspiration from his whereabouts. But he’d been making notes for the play since the early 1930s when he lived in Chicago, and he wrote the last act in Zurich.
Wilder de-localizes Peterborough, which was in fact a prosperous mill town with environs that had been a summer retreat for Boston’s prosperous since well back into the 19th century. His attempt to catch the New Hampshire way of speaking is approximate at best. (“I declare” could stand to be said a bit less often.) He has the Stage Manager give us a longitude and latitude that would put us out in the ocean off Rockport, Massachusetts. He moves Mount Monadnock from west to east, either on a whim or for the vague religious symbolism that Wilder slipped into his play. He pushes the dates on the cemetery headstones back a century, perhaps to prolong eternity or to tease the town for its torpor. He doesn’t do a flattering sketch of “Our Town.”
Lady in a Box Seat: Oh, Mr. Webb? Mr. Webb, is there any culture or love of beauty in Grover’s Corners?
Mr. Webb: Well, ma’am, there ain’t much …
In fact, Peterborough is soaked like its weather this summer with culture and love of beauty. It is home to America’s first tax-supported free library, founded in 1833 and recently restored and expanded. The MacDowell Colony fed and sheltered Thornton Wilder. The Peterborough Players have performed “Our Town” eight times, starting in 1940 when it was fresh off Broadway. There is the Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center, live music and other performances at the Peterborough Town Hall, and a lecture series, the Monadnock Summer Lyceum. Downtown Peterborough is filled with restaurants, cafes, art galleries and antique shops. We have a first-rate, first-run movie theater, a ski resort just 15 minutes up the road, and what is to my mind the best bookstore in the state, The Toadstool Bookshop.
All this did not spring from the Grover’s Corners we see on stage. I asked Tom Frey, “How connected to Peterborough is ‘Our Town?’”
He said, “Deeply — and not at all.” Here the award for depth of feeling goes not to Thornton Wilder for embracing Peterborough but to Peterborough for embracing his play.
And, in a larger paradox, America loves “Our Town” too. According to the program notes, the play “is performed at least once each day somewhere in this country.”
Yet the play is hardly American in style. It’s a severe piece of high modernism with a minimalist purity and various openings and closings of the fourth wall that still surprise 83 years after it was first performed.
We Americans like a busy stage with singing and dancing “for those who think they have to have singing and dancing.” Wilder was inspired by Japanese Noh theatre and Chinese opera. (You call that singing?)
Nor is “Our Town” American in form. There are no heroic strivings, no villainous schemes, no melodramas, no triumphs, no furious angers, no Carl Sandberg stormy, husky, brawling big shoulders, no Walt Whitman bear hug given to our wild and motley nation.
Thornton Wilder was a high modernist to a fault — a great admirer of Gertrude Stein’s daunting work and obsessed with the supposed splendors of James Joyce’s impenetrable “Finnegans Wake.”
Wilder, however, had things modernism lacked even when it was still very modern and in mode: A contention against absurdity, a willingness to engage in wisdom’s hide-and-seek, and a discernable message.
As Tom Frey put it, “It strikes one of the deepest chords you can strike — makes us realize that we’re not living life every minute.”
And the more mundane the moment, the more we should realize it’s a treasure.
Of course, if we were to fully make that realization, we’d be insufferable — emptying the dishwasher with a thrill, rapturously ironing shirt collars, relishing each fill-up at the gas station, and stopping not only to smell the roses but to sniff the garden manure and bug spray with equal gusto.
But humankind has behaved in far more insufferable ways than that. The “Our Town” approach might be worth a try.