But down we went, and had one of the most powerful evenings of theater I have ever experienced.
This well-known – too, well known -- play is presented with the audience surrounding the stage, just inches from the actors. As prescribed by Wilder there is “No curtain. No scenery.” The Stage Manager sets up the stage with a few tables and chairs as the audience is coming in. And then those opening lines:
“The play is called ‘Our Town.’ It was written by Thornton Wilder…..the name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire – just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn.”
The hint of an underlying theme about architecture, community, and place is there in the opening lines. Is this place, Grover’s Corners, defined by its geographical location? Of course not. It will be defined by people, and their loves and losses, and memories.
The Barrow Street production was stark in its sparseness. As the evening wears on, you feel the complete emptiness of the town as a physical place. It is all about these humans and their mundane – and yet, for them, hugely important, interactions.
In the third act, young Emily Webb, now dead, is in the graveyard with her mother-in-law. She is granted the Trojan Horse of a gift – the chance to return to one day in her life. She wants to come back to the morning of her twelfth birthday in her childhood home. As he drifts into the experience, all of a sudden, the black curtain at the front of the theater, is rapidly pulled open, and there is a full-blown perfect recreation of the scene of the family in their kitchen. Period clothing, curtains and dishes and furniture. And bacon is frying in the pan and quickly that incomparably enticing smell wafts across the theater. It was a true jaw-dropping moment. I actually gasped.
And I have never forgotten it.
An hour of the drama had pulled us into a world of words and relationships, and we had forgotten about physical place. Only when Emily is offered the chance to go back – that is to remember, in the hopes of returning or recovering – are we brought into the physical world of textures and light and smell. The rich, colorful light and scene, and the sound of that bacon sizzling and the rich, animal smell wafting into the theater – it was simply overpowering.
Emily did not revisit her earlier life. She was given the chance to return – via memory. And it turned out that the memory was so much more powerful and life-like than anything else in her reality. The memory was more poignant and painful in its contrast to the present-day in which the play takes place.
Charles Isherwood, the New York Times reviewer, noted that the old notion that this was a nostalgic play about the good old days was, in this production: “Nowhere to be seen, and good riddance. ‘Our Town’ is not a play about the evaporated glory of simpler yesteryears. On the contrary, it whispers to us the urgent necessity of living in the here and now — which is all anybody in Grover’s Corners ever had, all anybody anywhere really has.”
He says this of the surprise revelation in the third act:
“It’s a beautiful feat of stagecraft that departs from tradition but transmits the essence of Wilder’s philosophy with an overwhelming sensory immediacy.”
But the shock of the moment is much more painful than Isherwood describes. Wilder certainly argued, not only in this play, but in his other writings, that we should not inquire “why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it is on your plate.” And he gives to Emily Webb in that third act the line “does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"
But I think the lasting impact of that moment, why I, with a rather pitiful memory, can bring myself back to this moment which such immediacy, is how it spoke to something so fundamental that I, and we all, have wrestled with: what is the relationship of memory and place, between a real place and the memories of that place?
I felt a stunning awakening to something that is perhaps quite obvious: It said this: our memories can be far more real and life-like than reality. Or perhaps this: if we are not careful, the present will be in black and white, and the past will be in full color.
If we save a place, do we offer a way for people to smell the bacon sizzling? Or is that simply the dream of people dead, sitting upright in a cemetery, anguished about what they failed to appreciate while alive?