Three words come up a lot when you mention Our Town to almost anyone: One is "quaint." The others are "aw, shucks." These refer to the popular perception of Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic as a celebration of utopian America, a paean to a simpler time. Which is like saying Lolita is about an unlikely romance, or Death of a Salesman is a tribute to retail. It isn't just wrong, it's antithetical; it's the answer that tells the teacher you didn't do the reading.
"Our Town is one of the toughest, saddest plays ever written," the playwright Edward Albee reportedly said. "Why is it always produced as hearts and flowers?"
This is something I've wondered for as long as I can remember, which is also how long the play has been in my consciousness. It's been in my family—speaking of tough, sad, and inhospitable to hearts and flowers—for a lot longer than that.
My great-grandfather, Frank Craven, played the lead role of the Stage Manager in the original 1938 Broadway production, and his son, John Craven, my grandfather, played George Gibbs. Frank went on to star in the (botched) 1940 film version, but the role of George went to a young William Holden. Frank was already a very successful character actor—"the best pipe and pants-pocket actor in the business," the New York Times called him—but the play's enormous, iconic success made it the defining project of his long career, casting a shadow over everything else. He shared the screen with an impressive number of Hollywood legends (Bette Davis, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy), and wrote the screenplay for Laurel & Hardy's best film, Sons of the Desert. But in real life, Frank was no picnic, particularly when he drank (he was, after all, an Irish actor). When his son John married a Jewish woman (the star of the play John was in after Own Town, which closed after seven performances in 1939), Frank disinherited him.
John and his wife, my grandmother Evelyn, soldiered on and had a son of their own—later to become, among other things, my dad. The legacy of all this drama (I haven't even mentioned the divorces, the infidelity, the damage of World War II, or the fact that Frank's father was a famous blackface minstrel who came to America from Ireland in the wake of the great famine...) has reverberated down the generations with a surprisingly durable pulse. The dominant trait of the men on this side of my family has always been absence. Even calling it a family feels like an act of will. I spent more time watching John on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents than I ever spent with him in real life.
As for my father, despite a powerful genetic connection and an irrepressible love, we have simply never managed to get it together and simply belong to each other. In a strange way, and despite the fact that Our Town's plainspoken simplicity couldn't be any further removed from the 20th-century Byzantium of divorce and remorse alluded to above, Our Town stands as a sort of sideways monument to the failure of my family to—as the character Emily Webb learns during her ill-fated return to the land of the living in act three—realize life while we lived it.
A tiny, perfect thing happened right before Emily's cemetery scene at last Thursday's performance of Our Town. As Amy Thone launched into the Stage Manager's monologue that begins the final act, introducing the audience to the town cemetery, a small cluster of teenage girls in the audience couldn't stop giggling. Who knows what they were giggling at—some private joke. It was one of those spontaneous human things that happen during a live performance, all the more natural on account of the informality of the production.
They knew they were causing a disruption, and in their defense they tried to stifle it, but that only made the disruption more pronounced. Without missing a word of her speech, Thone silenced the girls with a look. A beat later came the line: "Summer people walk around there laughing at the funny words on the tombstones—it don't do any harm." Thone registered the auspicious timing with a little smile that seemed to radiate from the exact intersection of actor and character.
This little confluence of circumstance and subject matter is perfectly in keeping with the magic of a play whose depths are concealed by a genial surface. Our Town isn't about a time. It's about time. It's not a celebration of innocence. It's not a celebration of anything, except perhaps stoicism. It offers its characters and its audience no redemption, only a surrender to the certainty that life's deepest pleasure is unattainable by definition. The only thing that ennobles us is love, which we seem incapable of appreciating fully. The play is sad on a species level.
Which brings us back to Edward Albee's question: Why should such a tough, sad play always get buried under all those hearts and roses?
I think it's because you don't connect to art on a species level. Or maybe you do, but only after you connect to it on an immediate, emotional one. Forging that kind of connection from such deceptively austere material is a tall order, but Strawberry Theatre Workshop's production (which runs through February 21), under Greg Carter's direction, delivers on that promise better than any I've seen. It's a perfect treatment, staged with equal parts human love and Zen detachment, alive to Wilder's words and his larger purpose. Amy Thone's delivery of the Stage Manager's koan-like homilies—"Now there are some things we all know but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often..."—casts off my great-grandfather's pipe-and-pants-pocket trappings in favor of a very contemporary form of candor. Her presence is effortlessly commanding, but her art is to make the command feel like an invitation.
And her sure hand sets the stage for all the archaisms and makeshift scenery to disappear under the fantastically subtle lighting design, aided by brilliantly understated performances from the entire cast; even the acting disappears, until all you see is humanness. And it's the humanness that gets you: the way, for example, the wet gleam in Anastasia Higham's moonlit eyes as her Emily stares across the stage at Joe Cummings's George in act one emerges as full-blown tears in act three, when Emily, now dead, realizes that she's missed her last chance to love and be loved by her mother.
For all the metaphysical insight and theatrical innovation Our Town has to offer, I keep coming back to it because the plight of dead Emily yearning to go back and touch the life she never fully felt while she lived it stirs me as powerfully as if it had been torn from the pages of my own life. Which, every time I see the show, I like to pretend it almost sort of was. The reality, of course, is the exact opposite.
My life was torn from it.