Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Their town

There's a spoiler in here about the (now ancient) production of Our Town currently running at the Barrow Street Theatre. If you're likely to see this production, don't read my babbling post because I assure you the spoiler is worth saving up for the experience. The fact that Our Town requires a spoiler alert should give you pause.



Our Town is one of those plays. It's done so often, and so inexpertly, that it is easy to overlook just how good a play it is, how well-constructed. Most people think of it as a folksy homily, a celebration of small-town life, which it sort of is, but only on its surface. Our Town's heart is as bitter as a teabagger on tax day, only more sensible and a lot more understanding of the human condition.

I read Our Town in junior high, and didn't 'get' it. No set. No scenery. That's the first stage direction delivered by the play's author, Thornton Wilder, and I remember thinking, Ok fine. Then I saw a road production of Phantom of the Opera and understood: No set, no scenery is a pretty ballsy thing to write down. No set. No scenery. No artifice, no pretense, no oooooh, no aaaaaaah. No set. No scenery. No theatrics. Just theatre.

You know what else is a pretty ballsy thing to write? I'll tell you: Our Town is one of my favorite plays. When done well, the show can be devastating. Emily's farewell to clocks tickin' and sleepin' and wakin' up is pretty much the most moving passage in theatre for me (and yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Eyes Look Your Last, and you too, Ms. Kindness of Strangers).

Some years ago, I admitted as much to a self-styled dramaturg who spent most of his time drama-ing and precious little time turg-ing. His reaction was odd. Rather than tell me why Our Town sucks, Dramaturd decided to tell me why I sucked. Refreshing approach to theatre criticism, really--I had no idea my love of Our Town was offensive to Antonin Artaud. I didn't even know Antonin Artaud was capable of offense.

When I wrote a piece about Our Town for a local paper--where-in I waxed philosophical about the time my father took me to the Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery to see a production--the Dramaturd thought I was making a direct attack against his very being, and accused me of writing the piece specifically to make fun of him. And all I could think was, "No set. No scenery. He needs something to chew on, so I guess it's gonna be me."

The Dramaturd isn't, by the way, the only person to sniff at me when I admit my love for Our Town. Lots of more polite people have rolled their eyes at me when I talk about it, and usually say, "Oh god, if I never see that show again I'll die happy."

Anyway. Our Town, at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Greg was gaming--an all-day thing, a marathon of geeky dice-rolling and role-playing--so I'd decided to go see a show, rather than hang out at home (or, apparently, have dinner with a friend and his new boyfriend). After the first act, I ducked outside, into the bitter horrible no-good cold, to call Greg.

"I'm already crying," I told him, "and it's just the first act."

"So you're already crying. In the first act. Of Our Town." It was obvious from his tone that he was repeating this information for the benefit of other people in the room with him. It was made even more obvious from the sound of giggles and snorts I could hear in the background.

"Yes. Tell them to stop laughing. It's traumatic."

"I can't really talk right now, babe. I've just lost my sight and am wandering around blind in some cave."

"Welcome to my world."

But yes, the first act made me cry. The second act made me cry harder. And I hate crying in a theatre when I'm alone because it's pathetic enough to be in a theatre alone, let alone crying. And it's not as if I don't know Our Town like the back of my hand--it's not as if I don't know what's gonna happen. Mrs. Gibbs and her chickens, Mrs. Webb and her peas. Howie Newsome bringing the milk, George flirting with Emily. Not much going on, right, but so much to cry about.

What can I say. I'm sentimental.

So. Third act. The act that makes me adore the play, the act that makes the play transcend Music Man schmaltz and move into the realm of genuine art. Meditations on dying, on death, on grief. Emily tells the stage manager--who in the third act becomes something other than a stage manager--she wishes to return, wishes to relive a single, unimportant day from her life even tho all the other corpses in the graveyard warn her not to do it.

I know she'll do it. Emily always does it. Emily always returns to her 12th birthday, in order to reenact the "unimportant" day. There may be no set, no scenery, but there is always a morning of Emily's 12th birthday. The stage manager always grants her that wish, and I always go fetal when Emily realizes just how wonderful life truly is.

So Emily asks the stage manager to return, as usual. And the corpses warn her to not go back. And the stage manager tells her to choose an unimportant day. And Emily picks her 12th birthday. And at this point, since the first production of the show, Emily and her parents typically reenact that unimportant day, without set or scenery. And I cry.

This production, however.... well, when Emily tells the stage manager to take her back, the stage manager pushes back a thick curtain to reveal a hyper-real set. The very real kitchen of Emily Webb's childhood.

Her mother is there, cooking bacon (real bacon--the theatre filled with the smell of bacon and of coffee). The light through the frosted panes of the kitchen windows is real dawn sunlight (not really--it is theatre, after all). The water coming from the pump by the sink is real water.

Suddenly, when Emily delivers her tired, oft-quoted goodbye to living, she is saying it to real things. Not to the imaginary things all Emilys before this actress have said goodbye to, but tangible things. Suddenly, I didn't cry.

Also, I didn't exhale. I inhaled, though. I inhaled the entire short time the realistic set was being used, because I couldn't get enough of the smell of bacon frying and coffee percolating.

And I'd write more, but Greg and Waffles are demanding my attention. Small things, you know?

1 comment:

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