Monday, November 19, 2007

The Small Town in All of Us

In November I was invited to see a revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. To be honest, I thought going to Baltimore to see Wilder would be a little like going to Bronx Park to see the leaves change. As we drove up I-95, I recalled Shakespeare's caution that all theater required "a willing suspension of disbelief". Yet, I also remembered Robert De Niro's classic urban challenge in Taxi: "ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?" Eye contact in a small town reflects good manners; eye contact on the wrong street in the big city can be fatal.

I first saw Our Town in high school but I had a couple of aunts who had seen the original on Broadway. When I asked them what they thought, my Aunt Marge said, "too old, too soon; too smart, too late". My Aunt Wheesy added, "enjoy yourself honey, it's later than you think," a line from a song popular at the time. I remember agreeing with both appraisals. When I read the play again in college and realized that small town folks might just find Wilder amusing, while a city cynic like myself might just find him transformational. And so it was again the other night.

Our Town is a subtle piece of soft sell. Act One draws us into Grovers Corners with the stage manager (James Miller) as a guide. He introduces us to ordinary people in an ordinary town. The principal players are the Gibb and Webb families, next door neighbors. By the end of Act One we know that the boy next door, George (Ali Hong) is falling for the girl next door, Emily (Amanda Wyatt). Sure enough by Act Two George and Emily are at the altar accompanied by all the ordinary misgivings of ordinary people.

Yet beneath the folksy chit chat of Grovers Corners there is an undercurrent of Presbyterian fatalism. As in a Cotton Mather sermon, the citizens of Grovers Corners are dangling like spiders above the flames of fate. Act Three opens with a funeral. We are confronted with that small space between wed and dead. It's Emily. She has died in childbirth.

Emily is Chekov's gun. First we learned to like her, then we love her, then the playwright kills her. For Wilder, death is another ordinary part of life, unremarkable in general. But a specific death like Emily's can be quite extraordinary. She dies giving birth to another generation. Wilder kills her but he doesn't kill hope. Wilder's Emily Webb embodies the two most important, and contentious, human emotions; trust and regret. No relationship is possible without trust and no improvement is possible without regret.

All of the principals In Bryn Mawr's Our Town helped us to find that "willing suspension of disbelief". Yet in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I have known Mrs. Webb (Renee Best) since before she was born. I have watched her grow from shy girl to sure woman. I should recuse myself on the merits of Ms. Best's performance. The cynic in me says that it isn't much of a stretch for any girl to play an annoying mother, but the optimist in me says her patronymic speaks for itself.

The real genius of great plays often resides in small parts. Wilder and Bryn Mawr have two; the milkman and the town drunk.

At Bryn Mawr, the milkman, Howie Newsome, is played by a girl (Julie Roland). Yes, he is a she. But the androgyny evaporates the first time Ms. Roland hits her mark. Every time she appears we almost know what she will say, yet we want to hear it anyway. Julie Roland has that undefinable quality called presence. If she follows her nose, she is sure to find a bigger stage.

Spencer Tracy once said that the secret to good acting was to remember your lines and don't bump into the furniture. Yet, pantomime plays a rather large minor role in Our Town. Wilder, and Bryn Mawr it seems, are not overly fond of props or furniture. Mrs. Gibbs (Ren Andrews) and Mrs. Webb are forever fussing with imaginary pots, plates and pans - we must even imagine those shucked peas. Pantomime is the echo of the ordinary. We waste too much of our lives going through the motions.

Nowhere is pantomime put to better use than in the role of Simon Stimson (Johnny Snouffer). He is the organist, choirmaster and town drunk - a trifecta of civic virtue. At once comic and tragic, he suffers from demons unspecified, another dead man walking. Simon, like Emily gets to make one of life's early exits; she a victim of fate, he a victim by his own hand. We don't have to know the specifics of Simon's problems to appreciate his laconic world view. We like him anyway. Johnny Snouffer owns this part.

In the last scene of the play, Wilder brings the entire cast on stage; the dead stage right and the survivors stage left. Emily pleads with her mother-in-law, also deceased, to return to Grovers Corners on her 12th birthday. Mother Gibbs and Simon Stimsom know this is a bad idea. The dead do not look at the living, nor do the living see. Undeterred, Emily returns to the kitchen of her youth. After a few banal moments she pleads with the stage manager: "I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at each other". So there we are left by Wilder and his Emily. We now own the regrets.

Yup, I had a good time at Bryn Mawr the other night. As we left Centennial Hall, I heard an obviously proud mother exclaim; "How do they remember all those lines?" Indeed, it shouldn't be a mystery. Theater, like life, requires practice and it helps if you're doing something you love.

As we drove away from Baltimore, I had one special regret - that this edition of Our Town didn't run for three months instead of three days. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary takes time. Oh well, that's life in the fast lane. As Bogey might have put it; "Here's looking at you, kid".

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