Though I’ve been a theatre lover since I was a child and a theatre critic for the better part of a decade, there remain some seminal productions I have never seen. It’s not that I’ve avoided them in any way; it’s simply that these plays have not been produced with any regularity — at least in the vicinity of my zip code — or, when they have been produced, I’ve found myself with some unavoidable scheduling conflict.
One such foundational play that has, until now, eluded me is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Written in the 1930s and first performed in 1938, Our Town is considered a cornerstone work of modern American theatre.
Grover’s Corners, the fictional hamlet in which the play is set, has even become shorthand for old-fashioned, small town Americana.
The play, told in three acts, covers 12 years of life in Grover’s Corners, N.H. More specifically, it gives us glimpses into the lives of the townspeople during the course of those 12 years. While some characters are more lead and others more supporting, every character is integral in this play about community. With the help of an omniscient narrator, the audience is treated to a timeless view of Grover’s Corners.
Despite its early vintage, Our Town utilizes a very forward-thinking meta-structure. It is, effectively, a play within a play that allows the action to move forward and sideways smoothly in time without losing the audience along the way. The narrator is the Stage Manager (Beethovan Oden). He introduces, orchestrates and explains all of the action. He directs various actors to educate us about life in Grover’s Corners, and he himself lets us know, often well in advance, about the fates of certain characters. His is the single most important role in the production, and Oden does top flight work in the part.
As much a “slice of life” play as any I’ve seen, Our Town is both a snapshot of small town life in early 20th-century America and a reminder of the universality of the human experience. The milkman may not deliver to many doors these days, and two tin cans and a length of rope have been replaced by cell phones, but if you aren’t touched by the parallels between Grover’s Corners and Boulder (or any small- to medium-sized town) then you either aren’t paying attention or need to talk to your doctor about the dosage of your meds.
In a way, Our Town is like Seinfeld in that it’s a play about nothing. It is episodic, and it focuses on the moments that, strung together, make up all of our lives. In another way, Our Town is very much like Fight Club. (Crap, I just broke the first rule.) One of the most powerful points that that movie tried to make is that we all must know — not fear, but know — that we are going to die. From nearly its first lines, Our Town shares this realistically fatalistic world view, and its final act concerns itself almost entirely with the unavoidable nature of death and the need for the living to truly appreciate our short lives while we have them to live.
As I mentioned, Oden crushes in the role of Stage Manager. His performance is award worthy. In her second major role in this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival (the other being Kate in The Taming of the Shrew), Karyn Casl astounds as Mrs. Gibbs. Her efforts are so incredible that she completely erases herself and allows only the character to come through. This may be some of the best work I’ve ever seen her do.
Many who only have a glancing knowledge of it might assume incorrectly that Our Town is hokey, corny or hopelessly outdated. Those people more than any other would benefit greatly from seeing this show as the CSF has produced it this season. This thoughtful yet entertaining play is as relevant today as it ever was. It is considered a classic for very good reason.
On the Bill
Our Town plays through Aug.
4 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
Tickets are $10 to $54.
For tickets or information, please call 303-492-0554 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.