When the Berkeley Rep announced that it would be opening its season with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on September 9, the first thought in a lot of people’s minds was: Why? Why would a major regional theater — in Berkeley, for heaven’s sake — bother with this nostalgic portrait of small-town life in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire?
“I probably have had to articulate this for our staff more than for almost any other show we’ve ever done,” says artistic director Tony Taccone. “I think basically because Our Town has been so clearly the property of high schools and other well-meaning bodies of folks who want to make a patriotic statement.”
Our Town is often said to be the most-performed play in the history of American theater, although it’s unclear either who’s counting or even what that means. Presumably it’s referring to American plays, because it’s highly unlikely that Our Town has been staged more in its 67 years than Hamlet has since the nation’s founding.
One distinction Our Town can unquestionably claim, though it rarely does, is that it’s the most famous play ever written by a graduate of Berkeley High School. Wilder lived in the Elmwood District on and off from 1906 to 1915 with his mother and three siblings while his father served as consul general in Hong Kong. The young Thornton had walk-on parts in plays at the Greek Theatre as a child, and was writing short plays even as a student in Berkeley High’s class of 1915.
But Our Town is neither Berkeley nor any of the college towns and foreign countries Wilder lived in, but rather in New Hampshire, where he spent some summers teaching. “There are others I know better,” Wilder said in a 1937 New York Telegram interview, “but this is basically a generalization, and it is hard to generalize about one’s neighbors.”
It has become an awfully neighborly play, however, and all the school and community productions over time have earned Wilder’s chestnut a troublesome reputation as a mawkish paean to small-town life in a simpler time, so much so that it’s easy to see why Lars von Trier tried to annihilate it with his 2003 film Dogville. People may love or hate Our Town for its sentimentality, but few think of it as a stark and unflinching look at what fools we mortals be.
“Well, I don’t make it my business to go around criticizing productions of Our Town,” says Tappan Wilder, Thornton’s 65-year-old nephew and literary executor. “We’re all supposed to be tough-minded, existentially anxious, down-to-the-bone, get-to-the-gristle in our approach to art, but I have seen how important Our Town is in introducing students to art and the magic of theater. I myself was in it as a freshman in high school many years ago. Yet at the same time it’s a different play when it’s done by professionals. You do see the very tough, very dramatic, and often funny sides of Our Town.”
It’s also unquestionably a different play than when it premiered in 1938 and won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s difficult now to imagine what a Broadway audience might have made of this play with no set and no plot to speak of, simply depicting day-to-day life, marriage, and death in a New England town around the dawn of the last century, presided over by an omniscient stage manager who summons and banishes characters at will and tells you how they’re going to die as part of his how-do-you-do. Now that such nonlinear storytelling has become a theatrical commonplace, it’s as hard to gauge its original impact as it is to look at the King Kong of five years earlier and remember that audiences had never seen anything like that big ape before.
“Our Town evades every possible requirement of the legitimate stage,” the playwright told the New York Herald Tribune in 1938. “It is pure description, devoid of anything even resembling conflict, expectation, or action, which are usually considered the component parts of any play.”
Far from placating audiences with down-home wisdom, Wilder had intended to shake things up, according to his preface to 1957’s Three Plays. “I began to feel that the theater was not only inadequate, it was evasive … it aimed to be soothing,” he wrote. “The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.”
The charge that his Grover’s Corners represents a nostalgic idyll of good old days that never were, however, has been present from the beginning. “One faction says it is an almost suicidally depressing play; the other complains that it is glucose with sentimentality,” John Hobart wrote in a 1938 San Francisco Chronicle feature on Wilder. “He didn’t intend it to be either, and how can it be both?”
“He’d really hit something very important that could be easily seen as sentimental,” Tappan Wilder says. “In our family we don’t see sentimental as a bad word; we see sentimentality as something else again. That’s different — that’s a little dangerous.”
Tappan’s point about the play’s importance to students is well taken, particularly if one looks at the 2002 documentary OT: Our Town, about an attempt to stage Our Town as the first play at a Compton high school in more than twenty years. But it’s also easy to see how the play’s language may have become so dated as to seem saccharine when poor sweet dead Emily gushes, “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
“Something I’ve never seen in the play is its emotional jarringness,” says CalShakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone, who is directing Berkeley Rep’s production. “That’s why I didn’t set it on a bare stage. That was such an important event theatrically at that time, to get rid of the walls and be very metatheatrical about it, but now people do that all the time. There’s also the miming. I just couldn’t bear the idea of adult actors miming.”
When Berkeley Rep’s scene shop of two decades burned down in June, the joke the company told in order to look on the bright side was that at least the first production would be Our Town, a show that famously has no set or props to speak of. To purists, the director’s little tweak may be tantamount to heresy, but to Moscone the traditional staging had become a distraction. “You basically do plays to figure out what they are,” he says. “My instinct about any classic is that many of them are kind of covered in gauze; they’re seen through past productions or our own memory of them. And the idea is to just get rid of that for a minute, look at it from your own point of view. I think that’s our duty, actually. Our duty is not to put up the play again. I mean, you can go to your local high school for that. And I think there’s a reason high schools do it, because there’s something very sweetly dorky about it.”
Any parent knows that “why?” questions drive you up the wall. Why Our Town? Why here? Why now? But Taccone sees those questions in themselves as an excellent reason to do the play here and now.
“In the aftermath of 9/11, I just felt like examining the issue of community and what does it mean to be an American,” Taccone says. “While the play has survived because of its ‘existential’ themes — the birth, life, and death cycles that it so wonderfully chronicles — it’s been buried beneath this up-with-people patriotism. I wanted to exhume the play and see if it still meant anything to us as Americans, even if that was just a sense of what we’ve lost. Do we have any relationship at all to Grover’s Corners? Does this idea of small-town intimacy that cherishes basic values, from politeness to community solidarity, make any sense at all?”