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Culture Junkie: On living and dying, the power of theater and ‘Our Town’

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There are three kinds of people.

The people who love Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town,” the people who hate it, and the people who’ve yet to decide because they’ve never actually seen a production of it.

For the record, I’m one of the first ones.

I love “Our Town.”

I can even quote whole passages. So I’m going to end this column with my favorite line from the play.

How much do I love it?

If aliens landed and asked me to suggest one play that best defines and encapsulates American human beings of the 20th Century, I’d hand them a copy of “Our Town.” Or better yet, I’d take them to see a production of it. One generally doesn’t have to wait long for some theater company or other to stage the play. No matter how many people say they hate it, there’s always someone ready to take a crack at staging the thing.

“Our Town,” of course, focuses on the lives of the people of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and takes place at various moments between 1901 to 1913. Narrated by a mysterious, godlike character called “The Stage Manager,” it’s separated into three sections, titled “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Eternity.” The primary are Emily Webb and George Gibbs, next-door neighbors who start out as kids and then, in fits and starts, grow up, get married, and as the final third’s title indicates, move from the tiny daily details of life to a face-off with some of the biggest questions human beings ask. The first time I saw “Our Town,” it took my breath away.

It continues to take my breath away, whether in a professional or nonprofessional production, whether fully living up to its potential or only hinting at it. And I’ve seen the full spectrum.

I was recently asked how many times I have seen the 1938 Pulitzer winner. It was last Saturday, actually, while handing over my ticket to see Novato Theatre Company’s current staging of Wilder’s indelible, unstoppable play. For the record, Novato Theater Company – a plucky little community theater nonprofit with a home base in a small strip mall just off the freeway — is now celebrating its 100th anniversary. This means that NTC had been operating for 18 years when the Wilder produced “Our Town,” taking a crack at solving what he saw as a major predictability and laziness problem on the American stage. He had already earned one Pulitzer Prize, for his 1927 novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” and would go on to claim a third, for his 1942 play “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

“Our Town” is the one he’ll be remembered for.

But … back to last Saturday night.

It was Norman Hall, the veteran North Bay actor, who asked me that question, about my own history with “Our Town,” as he took my ticket at the door. That’s one charmingly consistent thing about North Bay theater: one week you can see an actor playing the lead in a play somewhere, and the next weekend you’ll run into them volunteering as an usher or parking lot attendant somewhere else.

It’s not called Community Theater for nothing.

Anyway. It took me a moment to do the math in my head. After a few seconds, I informed Norman that, including the production I was about to see, I can claim to have caught seven live productions of “Our Town,” in addition to seeing the 1940 film adaptations and a three different made-for-television versions, including my favorite, the 2003 PBS/Showtime production starring Paul Newman.

That production, based on the 2002 Broadway run directed by James Naughton, retained Wilder’s instructions that the play be performed on a bare stage with no scenery, minimal furnishings beyond a couple of tables, some ladders, several wooden chairs, and no props. As Wilder himself made crystal clear, though the story the actors tell takes place in Grover’s Corners at the turn of the century, “Our Town,” the play, is set in a modern day theater. Wilder warned people not to stray from that. The play has got to remain a drama about people in a theater performing a drama about people in a small town. Today, it would be called “meta,” a concept Wilder more-or-less helped introduce to the American stage.

That’s one of the things I love about it, honestly.

As much as “Our Town” is a celebration of the importance of life’s smallest and most easily overlooked moments, it’s also a love letter to the simple, direct, heart-stopping power and beauty of the theater. That’s why the narrator is the Stage Manager, after all. Not only does he – or she, in some cases, as in Novato, where Christine Macomber plays the role – narrate the tale, introducing the characters and telling us which geographic section of the bare stage is a house, a store, a church or a graveyard. The Stage Manager frequently stops the actions, thanks the actors, and sets up another vignette, occasionally stepping in to become a drugstore owner, a minister or the like. Late in the play, a recently deceased character suddenly turns to the Stage Manager, pleading for another day of life, a request that is reluctantly granted, with heartbreaking results.

Those who dislike “Our Town” generally do so either because it’s a play where nothing much happens, or because they feel its minimalist view of death – rows of chairs where the dead sit there, rarely moving, gradually losing their connection and memories of life – is “depressing.”

I’ve never found the latter part of “Our Town” to be depressing. To me, it’s genuinely thrilling. Because of course, every good story (even just a good one-third of a play) that focuses on death is actually focusing on life. The point of “Our Town” is that life is short, and many of us miss it because we’re not paying close enough attention. Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Buhler said the same thing in his own story, though without the chairs and pantomimed props. Matthew Broderick would make a great Stage Manager, by the way.

Like I said earlier, I was thinking of ending this little reverie with my favorite line from “Our Town,” but now I realize I don’t have one. I have three. I won’t tell you who speaks them, or when. Those who know the play will likely recognize these lines. I’ll leave it to the rest of you to find out yourself should you ever get a chance to see “Our Town” yourself. I think you should. You could either drop down to Novato and catch it at Novato Theater Company until the production ends on February 16.

Or you can wait till someone produces it again a little closer to home.

Most likely, you won’t have to wait long.

Favorite “Our Town” line No. 1: “You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to have life to love life.” Favorite “Our Town” line No. 2: “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute? No. Saints and poets maybe ... they do some.” Favorite “Our Town” Line No. 3: “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you!”

David Templeton’s “Culture Junkie” runs every other week or so in the Argus-Courier. You can contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

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