I was destroyed by the power of Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town” today. It was a surprise, came out of nowhere, as I sat in the first tech run-through of the MFA Year Three student production on a beautiful Saturday afternoon on the cusp of February.
I had left my husband at home this morning, gone to the bank, stopped to pick up the tech donuts, and arrived at the theatre at 11:30 for the final run-through before adding costumes. The theatre is in a state of disarray, the audience risers littered with neat piles of cables, and stray props. We are definitely not audience-ready.
I brought in a chair from the stacks of them in the lobby and watched from the front row as the students easily became the denizens of the town. On the surface, Our Town is such a simple story. And the set for our production, beautifully designed by Takeshi Kata, unfinished wooden floorboards and slate walls, meticulously carved by our carpenters, and deftly painted by our Vika, our scenic painter. The furniture, well worn from years of use in our stock, had been newly stripped by a company whose receipt had been causing consternation all week in the purchasing office at USC. The name of the company, the Happy Stripper, combined with the illegibility of the pink copy once scanned had set off a flurry of phone calls, and the petty cash process ground to a halt, leaving us with no additional petty cash until the Happy Stripper would fill out a W-9 form and submit it.
But now, the furniture was placed by our competent assistant stage manager, the lights focussed and cued, the sound set. The director had established the rehearsal room milieu of the play- not just the furniture, but everything was stripped down to its most basic elements, the actors even generating the sound themselves.
I turned off my phone, and allowed the story to envelop me.
Now, I should say this play is already laden with personal sentimental value. My husband, Jimmie played the stage manager about 11 years ago, at the age of 76 for his acting company, Interact, and our son, Chris, 14 at the time, had shared the role of Wally Webb with his best friend, Mikey, because neither of them could commit to the full rehearsal burden due to their respective sports of ice hockey and AYSO soccer.
I remember most about that production how moving Jimmie was and how hard it was for Chris or Mikey to sit still in the Act 3 cemetery scene.
Our Town is a sneaky play- it tricks you into thinking that it is a quaint treatise of life in the early 20th century in a small rural town in New Hampshire, and then it rolls up in the third act and throws you up against your mortality and that of the ones you love the most. At least that is what happened to me this afternoon.
At this run-through, the director asked me to set up some chairs to allow the family of a young actress who will audition for our BFA program soon observe part of the run-through with her parents. The four of them slipped into the theatre during the second intermission.
Wilder illustrated the separation of living from dead and the swift process of separation by recently dead Emily’s eager description of farm equipment purchased with Mama Webb’s “legacy,” and dead Julia Webb’s lack of affect upon hearing the news. The sharp contrast brings one to the blunt and brutal realization that everything physical that we care about is fleeting. Just like that.
Emily’s realization that it was too painful for her to be among the living and her retreat to the cemetery just destroyed me. I was sobbing, tears streaming down my cheeks.
I went to the director, my tears the universal language of his successful realization of the play. He asked me to come talk with the visiting family, and I did, telling the young woman about our other theatres and what it means to be a part of a BFA cohort going through four years together, while I sopped my tears on my t-shirt sleeve.
The power of theatre to move me and to force me to look at the world and my life is palpable today. I have Thornton Wilder to thank for that, and the class of 2014 MFA Actors.
Tonight, I am bringing a large box of Kleenex with me when I return for the first dress rehearsal and I am also bringing Jimmie with me.