An ‘Our Town’ that would make Thornton Wilder happy

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 6/13/24

In all theater, there is nothing like "Our Town." Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, the iconic work is now running at Old Academy Players

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An ‘Our Town’ that would make Thornton Wilder happy


In all theater, there is nothing like "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, the iconic work now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls moves ritualistically through the lives of the people in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire - people too harried to grasp the brevity of their existence. 

Grover's Corners is a snug parochial place that is also universal, where everyone is oblivious to their mortality. They know death only as a static fact. It has no felt resonance. The only knowing character is Stage Manager. We meet him at the beginning of "Daily Life" and he dogs you all night, whether you like it or not. 

On a bright morning in 1901, Stage Manager introduces you to the prosaic townsfolk.  In stately order, we meet the newspaper carrier, the milkman, a professor and the newspaper editor of the "Sentinel" who fills us in on the history and culture of Grover's Corners. 

We also meet the major characters, the members of the Webb and Gibbs families. Their children's romance and marriage are the storylines, but the true plot of "Our Town" is the march of events, relentless as the changing seasons and the passing of time. Stage Manager brings the opening segment to an ironic close: "That's the end of Act One, folks. You can go and smoke now. Those that smoke."

"Our Town" is a sterling example of "meta-theater," stage devices used to interrupt absorption in the story by reminding the audience they are watching a play. Versions can be found in Greek drama and it achieved near canonical status in Bertolt Brecht's "alienation effect." 

The purpose of meta-theater is to encourage people to think rather than lose themselves in a story. The major stage device is "breaking the fourth wall" via direct audience address. In "Our Town" omnipresent Stage Manager (Ross Druker) performs that role. 

Stage Manager is a striking presence, formally dressed in a vested suit and hat, (costume design by Helga Krauss). At times Druker is almost comical in refusing to show any emotional involvement in the events he reports. Over time, the steady lack of affective connection has a stirring effect, creating an unusual type of tragicomic tone. 

"Our Town" has a huge cast. It brings an entire community on stage, with well over 20 actors ranging from young children to older adults. That would seem to make the play a natural choice for neighborhood theaters. Yet the play is rarely performed. Perhaps neighborhood theaters are leery of its somber message. 

"Our Town" has enjoyed fuller success in national venues. There have been numerous television productions, including an implausible musical version with Frank Sinatra in 1955.  A steady stream of revivals have appeared on Broadway. Another is set to open this fall at the Barrymore Theatre.

Wilder is known to have been unhappy with many productions, believing they dumb down his meaning with sentimentality. But I suspect he would have been very happy with the show now running at Old Academy, as Director Jane Jennings hues to his script directions.

There is little stage scenery. The walls are even bare of covering, exposing wooden jambs as though the stage were an unfinished building, (set design by Jane Jennings and Carla Childs). There are few props other than chairs but audio effects are suggestive, much like the sound accents of old radio drama, (sound design by Sarah Labov). The lack of props means actors often mime activities such as eating or making deliveries, (more meta-theater).

The core actors are convincing --- Dr. Gibbs (Dan Crozier), Mrs. Gibbs (Leah O'Hara), Mr. Webb (Sam Gugino), Mrs. Webb (Sarah Labov), George Gibbs (Connor Patrick), Emily Webb (Haley Dunning).  Important as that is,  everyone is dwarfed by not being able to see how fate suffuses their lives. 

The oddest character is Simon Stimson (Rich Geller), the choirmaster. Stage Manager keeps telling us Simon "has seen a peck of trouble," but never tells you what that trouble is We only know he is a drunk who later commits suicide. It is comical that, in his dour way, Simon is the only lively member among the cemetery dead. 

Only the stone-faced dead have insight into life's meaning. When the newly arrived Emily asks Stage Manager if any of the living can appreciate the small joys of being alive, he answers with the play's signature line: "No, the saints and poets maybe. They do some."

The Gregorian lament "In media vita morte sumus" might sum up Wilder's theme - "In the midst of life we are in death." It is something we know and do not know. The achievement of the Old Academy production is that it makes you feel its reality. After you leave the theater you want to smell the wildflowers in the shrubbery. 


Old Academy Players is located at 3540 Indian Queen Lane. "Our Town" will run through June 23. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.