Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play first performed in 1938 is an American classic – there’s always a production on somewhere. It’s famous as a paean to small town American life, but its revolutionary form and its remarkable third act make it a lot more than that.
Social realism was the name of the game in serious theatre in the US between the wars, and OUR TOWN is certainly that, at least till the end of act two. But Wilder’s instructions about the setting were anything but: ‘No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light. Presently the stage manager, hat on and pipe in mouth, enters and begins placing a table and three chairs downstage left and a table and three chairs downstage right… As the house light go down he leans against the right proscenium and watches the audience. When the auditorium is in complete darkness, he speaks ‘This Play is called Our Town, it was written by Mr Thornton Wilder…’’’
Not much room for manoeuvre there. Wilder’s reasons for choosing this form range from the artistic (it creates universality, allowing the audience to form its own pictures of the houses, main street, churches and so on, so it really becomes their town), to the practical (the scenes range from domestic interiors to an ice cream parlour, a church and a graveyard), to the budgetary (it’s cheap). The last of these was never in Wilder’s thoughts, I’m sure, but it will be in a theatre producer’s mind. And the use of the stage manager as narrator, which he does throughout, allows Wilder to comment on the action and lead us backwards and forwards through time, which is crucial to the import of the play.
It’s a love story, at least it is for the first two acts. The second line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, Sonnet 43, came to mind ‘I love thee to the level of each day’s most quiet need, by sun and candle-light’. It’s that deep unspoken affection for one’s ordinary life and friendships that the first act celebrates; Wilder calls it ‘Daily Life’, introducing us to one day in the lives of the people of the town.
The second act, ‘Love and Marriage’, is set three years later, and opens on the wedding day of George Gibbs (Patrick Elue) and Emily Webb (Norah Lopez Holden), two young people we met in the first act when George was 15 and Emily 14, and they swapped homework answers from their bedroom windows. Now they and their families are in the usual pre-nuptial turmoil, but soon the stage manager steps in and ushers us back a couple of years to watch the beginning of the relationship, ‘ the conversation they had when they first knew that, as the saying goes, they were meant for one another’.
Elue and Lopez Holden are terrific in these scenes, and throughout the production. Elue in particular catches George’s gauche tenderness perfectly, while showing us the contained physical power of an athlete. The moment when Lopez Holden, in the middle of a huge row with George, agrees quite matter-of-factly to go for a soda, is a delight. She gives us the youth and sexual innocence of Emily with the same success as she gave the sophistication and duplicity of Regine Engstrand in Ghosts at Manchester’s HOME last year. I only mention this because you might not recognise her – that’s a compliment.
Act three is the sting in the tale of this romantic idyll, and I don’t propose to say any more about it, I’ve hinted enough, other than to disclose you’ll need to go to the show to find out, and it’s worth it.
I do have two quibbles with this production. It departs from Wilder’s instructions right at the start by filling the stage with tables and chairs and people sitting in them. They stay there for the whole of act one. Some of them are actors, some apparently not, and for me they cluttered the stage during the action. The house lights didn’t go down at all during the act, and the stage manager didn’t have a hat and a pipe, dammit.
I’d never seen the play before, nor read it, so my reaction to the staging is untrammelled by expectation. It was only after reading the play that I learnt about the stage directions, and the hat and the pipe, which seem imperative to me now, giving a relaxed sense of time and place. But the play is played in modern dress, and that and the presence of all the people on stage is probably to fulfil this production’s intention to make us see these characters as our contemporaries, the play as timeless. They needn’t have worried, act three, which is played pretty much by the book except for one extraordinary departure, does that perfectly.
My other quibble is the language. Apart from the stage manager, everyone here speaks in British English, albeit with a variety of accents, but not with any class distinctions that I noticed – one of the main reasons for using English would be because it’s difficult for a British ear to hear American class accents. And American English has its own rhythms, vital to character and comic timing, which is lost. These characters are both individuals and archetypes of American life, and I suspect an American audience would find the first two acts both much funnier and much closer to home than I did. Imagine playing Corrie in an American accent to an American audience.
Nevertheless I understood the love, expressed in all sorts of ways, and I’m still thinking about the meaning of act three.
Main image: Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez Holden. Photo by Stephen King.
OUR TOWN is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until October 14, 2017. For tickets, click here.