This plug is shameless, so get over it.
If you keep up with my life on any form of social media, then you’ll know that right now, I am in the middle of tech week for a production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Our Town. So this week, I decided to give you a sort of “sneak peak, background, behind-the-scenes” look at what makes this play so groundbreaking and unique.
First of all, though I hate to borrow such a cliche line: it’s not like other plays. There are no props. No discernible set pieces. Every movement is pantomimed on stage in real time. The play itself is narrated by the “stage manager,” who directly addresses both the audience and the characters without changing the course of the story.
But here’s what happens: in a play without sets or props, the audience can focus on the behavior of the characters. At least in my experience, this technique is less about “creating truth” and more about stripping away the unnecessary details so that only the heart of the story remains.
Our Town is the story of a Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire an the people who live there. Most of the play specifically focuses on two families who live as next-door neighbors: the Gibbs and the Webbs. Each of the three acts represents one day in the lives of these people, spread over a number of years; each one also offers a new perspective on what it means to be alive.
What’s amazing is how even though the play technically takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, the events and themes of each act still resonate today. It shows how every person, from the beginning of time, has felt the same wants, fears, and longings, even if we express them in different ways today.
For example, I play Mrs. Gibbs. There’s something surreal about walking on stage as a single 22 year-old college student expected to play a woman in her mid-thirties with two nearly-grown children and a husband and house of her own. In terms of emotional complexity, I would say that this has been one of the most interesting roles I’ve had to date.
Including the time I was a radio.
You heard me.
Just. A. Radio.
In any case, what inspire me the most is knowing that every time I walk on stage, I am representing someone from the past. More than that, I am representing someone who very well could have been me, or even one of my ancestors, which is a powerful thing.
I don’t pretend to come from any form of “interesting stock.” Let’s face it, in an area populated by the descendants of Dutch, German, and Polish immigrants, most of our histories sound the same, and mine is no exception. But I do think that each family, even the uninteresting ones, have their own stories and legacies handed down that make them more unique.
In my family, we come from farmers. Earlier this year, my mom pointed out at a family dinner that maybe this is why she loves to garden, why we might feel a stronger “connection” to the country and the earth. My grandmother’s family came from cotton pickers in Arkansas; my grandfather’s family were Swiss farmers from Pennsylvania. To say that farming is “in my blood” might be an understatement.
So when Mrs. Gibbs walks onstage to feed her chickens, I think about the women my family who did the same. She pumps water into her sink; I wonder what their sinks would have looked like. I watch my “children” go off to school and think of how much education they received, or if they liked school as much I did.
Their days and our days are not so far removed. Their struggles are our struggles. Their fears are our fears. These are, in fact, the ties that bind. Though we live in the future, and we know how the story ends, we can still look back and see ourselves in the people how they lived, how they loved, and how they died.
Come and see me at Cornerstone University’s production of Our Town on March 31 and April 1. I promise you’ll have a good time. And you won’t cry.