Living in ‘Our Town’

Every time I see Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” I end up talking like the Stage Manager for at least two days. It drives my wife crazy.

My first encounter with “Our Town” was in a high school production. The all-boy student body at my high school, Manhattan Prep in the Bronx, liked it because we had to import young ladies from the neighboring all-girl Catholic schools to play the female roles. A cup of cool water in the desert of our lives.

The play is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The first performance was in New Jersey in 1938 and would win Thornton Wilder a Pulitzer Prize for drama.

For a number of years I had it in my head that Wilder was a Catholic convert. He wasn’t. In fact, his direct roots were old-fashioned Calvinist. I refuse to hold that against him.

I have seen “Our Town” on the stage and television I don’t know how many times. I am a sucker for it. We visit Grover’s Corners, N.H., introduced by the Stage Manager. We meet the townspeople on May 7, 1901. We revisit three years later in the second act; then another nine years later in the third act. In three acts, we look at life in the town, love and marriage, and death.

The theme of the play is best described in the words of the Stage Manager as “some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often.”

A few weeks ago I visited Grover’s Corners once again, though it was in eastern Ohio. It was in a small town’s community production.

Like every small town, there is a renovated movie house where they put on plays and musicals. You can take your popcorn and your drink right to your seat and enjoy them in the middle of the play.

Which means I saw “Our Town” in our town. The community got the connection. On the backdrops old town photos were displayed while the play was going on.

As a kid I identified with Emily and George, the youngsters who fall in love and marry. Later with Emily’s dad, the newspaperman. I even went through a period where I identified with Simon Stimson, the hard-drinking church organist who raged against a world that could only disappoint him. Now that I’m older, I identify with everyone.

The third act in “Our Town” begins in the town cemetery where the dead of Grover’s Corners sit quietly “and think only of what’s ahead and be ready for what’s ahead.” Wilder explained that he took that part from Dante’s Purgatory. Which is an interesting observation from a Calvinist.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux told us that the miracle of life is lived in the ordinary moments. “Our Town” both celebrates and mourns that essential truth. It celebrates “Mama and Papa, clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed shirts and hot baths and sleeping and waking up.” And it mourns: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

And the Stage Manager answers: “No. The saints and poets. They do some.”

Wilder died nearly 40 years after his play, in Connecticut in 1975. But even back in 1938, he was wondering about the passing of a certain world 25 years earlier: “Gradual change in Grover’s Corners. Horses are getting rarer. Farmers coming into town in Fords. Everybody locks their doors now at night. Ain’t been any burglars in town yet, but everybody’s heard about ’em.”

Grover’s Corners reminds me of the hometowns where everybody can’t wait to be old enough to leave. And then spend the rest of life trying to get back. We can be like that with the Faith, too.

Which means I’m still talking like the Stage Manager. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.