I watched Paul Newman's version of "Our Town" tonight. This has been one of my favorite plays. I remember as a child watching it on PBS staring Robbie Benson. In junior high school, I was in the hospital and the tutor assigned the play for me to read.
It is funny how a play sticks with you. All these years, it seems that the characters occasionally perform parts of the play inside my head. Why should this play more than others have that effect?
It is a strange play in many ways. Scenery is a bare minimum and there are hardly any props. The characters pretend to eat or string beans or throw baseballs. The Fourth Wall is constantly broken, and characters even shout out questions from the audience. In lesser hands, this play could have degenerated into farce, as so much of modern experimental theater often does.
And yet, the play is rightly considered a triumph of American drama.
By stripping the scenery and props, Wilder forces us to concentrate on the themes of the story. The story itself and the characters are quite ordinary. It is mentioned that one minor character, a newsboy, later graduates MIT with honors but dies in France during World War I. As for the rest of the characters, they are typical New England townsfolk. And the play begins with those typical townsfolk doing what typical townsfolk do. A doctor comes home from a house call. Mothers make breakfast for their families. The milkman goes about his deliveries. Nothing earth shaking, quite boring really.
But in many ways, that is the point. Life is really best lived by appreciating the little things, by taking time to occasionally stop and look at each other. Life, love, marriage, birth and death, gain and loss, all are parts of life to be treasured. Wilder was a Congregationalist, and while I do not know his real attitude toward religion, the play does try, in the words of the Stage Manager, to grasp the eternal.
You can argue that plays such as this are no longer relevant, but I would argue that Our Town is even more relevant today than when it was written. The world has sped up, do we ever really stop and take time to remember what is important, who is important. Does anyone stop and look, really look, at their spouses, children, friends, family? Shouldn't we?
When the movie ended, I walked into my children's room and looked at them as they were sleeping. Can I really appreciate this time with them? They grow up so fast, have I really noticed?