The first time I read Our Town as a teenager I immediately fell in love. I realize that not everyone holds the same feelings that I do. I was always a weird kid who felt the urgency of life and the shortness of time we had on this planet in a very real way. Our Town spoke to that.
From that point on, I would revisit the script again every few years but never got the chance to see the play performed for many years after my first reading. But whenever I needed a reminder in life, about its beauty and our need for gratitude, I would pick up my worn copy of the play and reread Emily’s beautiful monologue near the end.
I also found that people seem to either love Our Town or think it is boring. Few people take the middle ground on their feelings about this play. I have decided that those who find it boring were bored teenagers when they read it and never bothered to read it again, but I could be wrong. I just can’t find anything boring about this play.
In the last two years or so I have been able to see Our Town three times locally. Each production was different than the last and each one was beautiful in its own way. I came to the realization that I had read it so many times and seen it over the years so many times that I was becoming immune to the emotions it had always evoked- until last Friday.
Last Friday I went to see Birmingham Festival Theatre’s production of Our Town. I’ll be honest, as much as I love the play I probably would not have gone if I didn’t have my favorite ladder on the set, some of my favorite people weren’t in it and one of my favorite directors wasn’t directing (and as it turned out was in it as well!) After all, life is hectic right now, it is cold outside and like I stated above, the show has been done a lot recently.
I went by myself since my family is in the camp of finding it boring. When I walked in the theatre I ran into one of my old friends that was ushering and whom I tend to see at every show I go to recently! It is always good to see a friendly face!
In line at the box office was a new friend that I have been recently reacquainted with. She is the wife of one of my Montevallo classmates and is the kind of person who just exudes calm and kindness. She makes me feel happy and creative by just being in her presence.
She asked if she could sit with me and I pointed out that we had assigned seats. She pulled out her ticket only to find that we were seated beside each other! She commented that if we had tried to have a night together like this we would never be able to get it together and yet, here we were!
We chatted quite a bit. I also turned to chat with another actor friend I knew who was seated behind me. I asked the friend behind me if she was working on anything right now and she told me no, that she was taking a break. We talked about needing a break to get our rest and to get our creativity flowing again. We talked about seeming to need longer breaks as we were getting older.
Imagine my surprise when the actor sitting behind me turned out to be in the show! I felt so silly not knowing that she was part of the cast. She did an excellent job of just blending into the audience. And so begins my journey with this production.
Before I jump in, keep in mind that my son is newly married this year, my father and father in law are aging at what seems a rapid decline and I am trying to wrap my head around all of the changes in our lives.
Let me also say that for some reason I almost never read the program before a play. Sitting in a theatre before a show I tend to study the set and listen to conversations around me. I watch the audience and get a feel for the vibe in the room. I save the playbill for intermission sometimes, bedtime reading at home usually. In this particular instance I am glad I didn’t look at it because not knowing the friend behind me was in the play was only the beginning of the surprises I got to experience throughout the evening.
When the play began, the director came out to put out some set pieces, check things off of his clipboard, and then make a few announcements. As he nonchalantly chatted I realized that he was speaking the lines of the stage manager, the iconic character of the entire play. He was so sincere and so relaxed in his speech that I never realized he had begun the play. It didn’t seem the dated, scripted facts of the play but just a guy telling us some stuff. I was transfixed.
As the other characters came out, they too were in casual everyday clothes that they could have had on that afternoon around the house. At first, I was not quite sure about this, but as the show went on I realized how this, along with the few set pieces all painted black, made the show even more timeless than usual. A few chairs, a couple of tables, a couple of ladders and a board, were all that were needed to tell the story.
Although the era of the play is stated in the lines of the script (early 1900s) it never really feels like a period piece, it could have been anytime, anywhere. The lack of color on the set, the lack of focus on props, no distraction of costumes, made this play what it and any good play should be at its core, pure storytelling.
In a presentation I made a couple of weeks ago I wrote and then presented the line, “Seeing an audience care and connect with the story you are telling is one of the joys of live theatre.” This production took that joy to a new level.
The first act sets the stage by portraying a day in the life of this fictional town. At the first intermission, my young friend, who is from another country, had very interesting questions for me and I thoroughly enjoyed discussing act one with her.
During act two, the focus is on a wedding. At one point, when Mrs. Gibbs speaks to her son George right before he walks down the aisle, I felt like I have never felt before. Standing nearby as they talked, I felt the room empty of everyone except for the two actors and me. I felt light headed and yet totally connected to what they were saying. As they finished and the scene went on, I thought that if I didn’t rejoin this planet, I was going to have to not only get my husband to pick me up after the show, which was our plan, but he was going to have to come in and literally pick me up!
At the second intermission my young companion asked how I felt after that act since we had been discussing her wedding in Italy and my son’s wedding here in Alabama right before the show. I told her I had no words at this time and just smiled. She agreed. It is always nice to find a kindred spirit!
In the last scene, the young woman named Emily, who has just gotten married in act two, has died. The staging with the dead spirits spread throughout the audience, holding small lights in their laps is both beautiful and haunting. My friend who was portraying Emily is not the typical age of the actresses I have seen before in this role. This actress is a bit older than the character and I had my concerns going in.
I should have known better. Not only is this actress one of the very best, but her youthful look when she first entered in act one was disarming. She carried herself as a teenager, spoke like a teenager and made me believe she was a teenager. All through the show I believed whatever age I was told she was and yet the experience and years this young woman actually has lived added a depth and meaning to the words she spoke that left me breathless. She was both ageless and experienced, relatable and deep.
After the play there was a talk back which I might would have stayed for had my husband not been on his way to get me. I explained to my friend beside me that I had to go and stepped out quickly so as not to disrupt the talkback. As I stepped out into the chilly night and took a seat on a bench in the courtyard to wait, I realized I was glad to be outside, seeing the night sky, breathing the cold air, hearing the sounds around me.
Thinking about what I had just experienced, noticing the world as it lived around me, closing my eyes and taking in everything before opening them back up and taking in more, seemed the only way to finish this meaningful night of theatre.
Life is short and fragile. Every day is a miracle and every mundane act is sacred. Noticing the life we are blessed with, seeing the delight in the simple, feeling the joy in the everyday, acknowledging the extraordinary in the ordinary, that is what life should be. In Our Town, we are reminded about the simple, about the average, about the everyday while being reminded to revel in those very things.
I have rarely enjoyed a play so completely, from the happenstance of where I sat and who I saw, to the joy and emotion brought on from the play itself as well as its connection to my life right now, to the moment of connection with the world around me afterwards.
And for those in the camp that think Our Town is boring, well, I will never understand you. Especially after this. For those who find an “average” day boring, I am sorry. There is so much to marvel at, so much to do, so much to be grateful for in every moment. Every tick of a clock should remind us to rejoice and be glad!