It’s 0330 on a Saturday morning and tears have been streaming down my face to my pillow for some time now. I’ve finally determined that the best course of action is to get my thoughts down on “paper” as we used to say (and do). The impact of last night’s play performance at two of my children’s high school in Columbia, Maryland is still in full effect. The best compliment I can make to the cast and the production staff is that they brought Wilder’s work to life and moved me deeply.
This review/reflection may be a bit of a ramble as I try to sort out what I’m feeling and as is often the case on this site there will be SPOILERS. What is a theatre review doing on a (now generally dormant) blog about comic books? Well, our blog title does include the phrase “And Other Imaginary Tales”. And as the playbill blatantly declares, Our Town is a “fictional town”.
The literary work is quite thought provoking and filled with universal truths. However, I don’t see every element in the play as entirely accurate based on my beliefs. That’s okay, because this tale of 100 years past is still wholly relevant today. The play consists of three Acts: Daily Life – 1901, Love and Marriage – 1904, and Death – 1913. The narrator breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, politely moving characters off the stage when their scene is completed. She (in this production) verbally describes the people and setting about town on a stage devoid any sets, except for a few nondescript chairs and a couple of tables. Likewise, the actors are chiefly adorned in all-black costumes with a minimal of props (a few hats). They handle invisible objects and are accompanied only by a few sound effects against a single “Monolith”-ic colored rectangle depicting the time of day. All of this serves to enhance the dialogue and the drama without distraction.
You probably can determine a lot about the story just from the Act titles listed above. It’s a day in the life at a time (initially) before electricity. The milkman delivers his glass bottles by horse, the wives of the two families are busy at work around the house, and the children read by moonlight. Sounds pretty antiquated, doesn’t it? There are various townspeople identified (and one in particular gossiped about), but the play is largely focused on the neighboring Gibbs and Webb families. It’s about hopes and dreams, frustration and longing, love and marriage, parents and children, etc. – you know the stuff of life…and death.
So, I attended this play as a spectator, not as a proud parent with a burgeoning thespian on stage, with my oldest daughter Charlotte, who is a senior at the school. This Daddy-daughter night out was arranged by my wife, who bought the tickets for us. Charlotte who had read the play in school last year was primarily going to support one of her friends from choir that was in the production. I had heard of Our Town, may have seen a movie about it years ago, but was largely going into the event “blind”, erroneously imagining it as a combination of Our Gang and Boys Town. I certainly didn’t expect to react so emotionally to it during the final act.
As a parent of six children aged 5 (boy), 7.5 (girl), nearly 12 (girl), 13.5 (girl), 15.5 (boy), and soon-to-be 17 (girl); and a husband of 21 years later this month, there was a lot for me to identify with in the story. I can vividly recall the time when my wife, Pam, and I went from best friends to a couple (I wrote about it last year in the post A Night to Remember and posted it on this site). George Gibbs and Emily Webb have their “moment” at a soda shop over an ice cream sundae. The scene of Dr. Gibbs chastening George over shirking his chores while his hard-working mother chops the wood reminds me of daily happenings around my house nearly every single day! The long working days of the good doctor and his lack of rest is pretty reflective of my work schedule most of the time (but for me it’s beneficial because it actually affords me more time with my family – my wife might disagree but she needs more sleep than I do (I should be sleeping in right now!).
The wedding scene between George and Emily was NOT reflective of my wedding as I was NEVER anxious about growing up, but eagerly looked forward to that day. However, I think a lot of people can be conflicted that way. I especially didn't agree with Mrs. Webb’s comments on marriage, but again in this day of rampant divorce and just knowing all the troubles we experience in life, I could understand her sentiment. For many the hopes at the start of marriage don't end up as expected. I've been blessed with a wonderful one, but I've had my ups and downs in other areas of my life (as have we all).
The first act is really the first half of the play (followed by an unannounced intermission) as the second act transitions immediately into the third. This shift from George and Emily’s marriage to Emily’s death during the birth of their second child nine years later is made particularly poignant with the surprising inclusion of the contemporary song, “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry. Despite my primary proclivity toward ApologetiX and older music via Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 (the 70s and 80s) and Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap, I do dabble in modern music too, so I was familiar with the song and it immediately resonated with me. Obviously, that wasn’t part of Wilder’s original manuscript. And I have no idea whether or not using this song is unique to this production, but I can also imagine that perhaps many such relevant songs since the play’s debut in 1938 (ironically the same year Superman was first published) have been used over the years. It doesn't really matter I suppose, but the effect was powerful as George drops Emily’s hand and exits the stage, and then she is dressed in a white robe (now I know why there was no white wedding gown) while the mourners surround her, holding umbrellas that keep back the driving rain, but not the drowning sorrow.
In the foreground, many of the now-dead characters (including George’s mother) sit as still as tombstones. There’s a spotlighted empty chair among them, which awaits Emily’s arrival. As she approaches, she greets the ones she knows and the dead respond to her. These spirits are not in Heaven or Hell, but appear to be in semi-detached limbo state (I disagree with this portrayal of the afterlife from a Biblical perspective). They seem to have resigned themselves to their new status and urge Emily to do the same. But she’s not ready; she wants to go back and remember her past life, reliving a day as a ghostly spectator. They warn her not to pick a special, over-joyous day, because it will be too painful to view the past, while knowing the future troubles the living will eventually face. They tell her to pick “an ordinary day”. She compromises and selects her 12th birthday.
She immediately is shocked to see how young her mother looks. Her long-dead brother who died of appendicitis is at the breakfast table. Her mother is busy about her daily routine around the house and Emily realizes that they all are not really “looking” at each other. She wants them to appreciate this moment, because they have no idea that it all will change so soon for them. Her father arrives home from a trip and greets her mother affectionately. This also surprises her because she doesn’t remember him acting this way. “Why do they have to get so old?” she laments.
This reminds me how some of my own children can’t seem to appreciate the romantic physical relationship I have with their mother. They recently questioned why I created Pam’s PS3 username as “Hot Mama!” “Don’t you want to marry someone who is ‘hot’?” I replied. Of course they responded affirmatively. “Wouldn’t you want that person to still be ‘hot’ after 21 years of marriage?” I’m still not sure they got it.
At this point, young Emily comes down to open her presents, and the distinction between the living and dead is blurred as dead Emily is caught up in the excitement. There is not a separate actress for young Emily; it’s just the same actress switching dialogue. One of the presents is a gift from George next door. It all soon becomes overwhelming to her and another modern selection of music is played (I recognized it but I don’t know the name) as she continues to shout at the living, because of their ignorance while moving toward her place in the graveyard. She’s ready to rest now.
It’s not a happy ending and during these two musical selections, I’m trying to stifle my tears. I often think about death and eternity. Part of this stems from my Daddy’s death at the young age of 31, which I wrote about in the post A Day to Remember. I would sometimes imagine that I too would die at that same age and when I passed that milestone, I was keenly aware that EVERY day is a blessing. I didn’t take a day for granted for a week at least! But normally, I try to appreciate the little moments during the day and scribble them down in my work journal/diary. Thursday, my young son, “Manny” (Matthew Jr.) constructed a doll-sized air mattress out of cardboard, ingeniously selecting a special piece that already had inlaid circles to represent the “buttons”. He just did this on the middle of the kitchen floor where most of his crafts and artwork originate.
The other part stems from my Christian beliefs where my heart can break for the lost, who are facing even more hardship in the afterlife if they refuse God’s gift of Salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s important to consider such things, which I believe is the point of the play, but it’s also true that you can’t solely dwell on them constantly or you’ll likely be discouraged. Our time here is fleeting, and you need to enjoy this life and the people around you while you still can. I would encourage you to read the following Scripture passages that relate to this principle: Ephesians 5:15-17 and Psalm 90:12-15 (The full chapters are good too).
It’s now 0645 and the house is starting to stir (and yes I write this slow, which is why I no longer post on a weekly basis). I think I got most of my thoughts down. There are other aspects that relate to my family that I don’t have time to discuss and it might be too personal for them for me to share. I wish they could see the play either tonight (7 pm) or tomorrow (2 pm), but our schedule is already booked! I did tell Pam she should take her Mom on Sunday. The two were planning on cleaning out the garage while I took the kids on our annual trip to D.C. (we normally don’t go on a Sunday). I’m really looking forward to the D.C. trip it!
Here’s an idea for you to consider: Write a brief letter or note to one of your children or grandchildren about a recent day or activity you enjoyed with them. Then give it to them years later, when they’ve probably forgotten about it. It might give them the perspective that Emily had; only they won’t have to die to learn the lesson.
I’m going to see Thor: The Dark World later this morning, I expect for it to be exciting, but I doubt it can touch my soul like this wonderful play did.