A classic of American theater opens next week at Community Players in Bloomington.
On the surface, Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” seems a straightforward play. But within its simplicity resides universal truths about what it means to be human. Set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, “Our Town” follows the lives and deaths of its residents.
The show is directed by Marcia Weiss, who said Wilder stresses universality of every human being’s experience.
“We all are born, many of us get married, some have children, but everybody dies. It’s inescapable and irrefutable.”
The importance of realizing life as it's being lived and appreciate it is a strong theme throughout the play, said Weiss. But that’s a tough thing for humans to do, busy as they are caught up in the business of living.
“I think we’re incapable of doing it all the time. But one of the most magnificent things about this play is that it’s a wakeup call to be appreciative, to be aware, to look at the sky, to look at the stars, to listen to quietness, to slow down in a life that is very unrepresentative of our current existence, which is very technology driven, very screen driven. This is a real trip back which I think everybody needs to take.”
“The play is very much down to the essence of what human life is.”
“Our Town” was first performed to great acclaim in 1938. Wilder specified that the play should be performed without sets or props, which was most unusual at that time. Community Players is staying true to that, said Weiss, with just a few risers upstage and nothing more. “I think it echoes the platforms of a Greek chorus," she said.
“What inspired Thornton Wilder to write the play was a time in his 20s and he was in Rome to study archeology. He was in some ruins, and he looked through the ruins and he saw a chimney.”
“He realized these people lived and died, they worked, they provided for their families, smoke went up their chimney. And at the same time, he was hearing all the traffic in Rome. I think that element of life from long, long ago ‘til now was something that really struck him.”
Central to “Our Town” is the character of the Stage Manager, played in this production by Dakota McDaniels.
“We’ve talked so much about who the Stage Manager is. He does narrate the action, he participates in the action and many times he actually drives the action. He’s totally omniscient, and he’s very compassionate.”
“In 1938, I can’t imagine how innovative this play seemed. And what’s really unusual is it’s still innovative now. You know, the whole idea of miming entire scenes, that’s not something you’d see regularly in the theater. The professional theater is very oriented for spectacle, lots of flash, lots of dance, lots of huge sets, lots of big things happening. That’s not what happens here.”
Not having any props for the actors might make the prop master’s job easier, but Weiss said it can be difficult for the actors.
"It seems like having nothing to work with might be easy, but in fact it’s very challenging. Because it’s all coming from you. The actor has to tell the story totally on their own. They can’t be dependent on something visual and concrete. They have to create the entire story.”
“Our Town” is a popular choice for many theater companies, said Weiss, and is one of the most produced plays in the United States. And, no, it’s not just because the lack of sets and props makes it easy to stage.
“It’s the story that everybody gravitates to and connects to in a very, very deep way."
“Our Town” opens with a preview Jan. 9 and continues through Jan. 19 at Community Players in Bloomington.
Due to complex themes of life and death, the play is rated PG-13.
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