What a treat! I just came back from a moving production of Our Town, compliments of my husband, David, who took Alex and me to dinner and the theatre as an anniversary present. I’d been wanting to go for a while. Ever since this Off-Broadway production of the show hit the footlights, it’s received rave reviews. Now I know why — great play, great acting, great staging. What else is there?
According to a note about the playwright, Thornton Wilder, “Our Town is performed at least once each day somewhere in this country or abroad….” Another note on Ted Snowdon, one of the producers, says: “He first wept at Our Town at an all-girl’s school 50 years ago and is humbled to be back Off-Broadway with this classic play.”
Weeping producers and non-stop performances: what is there about Our Town that makes it so incredibly popular, even today? Why has the play packed the Barrow Street Theatre night after night? In the age of tweets, and texting, how has this small-town drama endured and thrived?
I’m sure the Thornton Wilder Society debates all this endlessly, but purely from a play goer’s point of view, Our Town is just enormously satisfying emotionally. It has a classical three-act structure and timeless themes: birth, death, marriage, the meaning of life. It’s anchored in a small town, but over a 13-year period the townspeople we meet and come to know are battered by change and tragedy.
The constant tension between rootedness and upheaval propels the play forward. But most of all, there’s Wilder’s simple yet bold innovation — a radical departure back in 1938 — using the role of the Stage Manager to break down the wall between the play and the audience. In a way, he becomes the wall, invisible and permeable: we step back and forth through him into the play and then outside it again. Marvellous. By pushing the envelope theatrically, Wilder created a work of art that’s still alive and kicking after seventy years — and vast galaxies of change. How inspiring!