Being encouraged to live in the moment can entice a variety of reactions. One of the favorites is eye-rolling, perhaps a humming of “No Day But Today” from the musical Rent, or perhaps an earnest reflection of one’s current place in life. After viewing the production of Our Town , at the Barrow Street Theater, it was the latter that was inspired by such an earnest, humble and honest performance of a life.
A staple of theater, academic, amateur and professional, Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play examines the happening of the small town Grover’s Corner. Performed in three acts, named “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Eternity,” the show is built around the relationship of the neighbors George Gibbs and Emily Webb. Narrated by the Stage Manager, this performance takes place with no setting or props other than two tables, the actors clad in contemporary, everyday clothing.
First performed in 1938, Our Town is often associated with nostalgia for small-town life or the simple romance of two childhood sweethearts falling in love. This simplistic, no-frills production does not evoke such wistful longing but rather a melancholy reflection on the actions of everyday life and their actual meaning.
At times, this production hits a little too close to home. Perhaps it’s the physical proximity of the actors, who do not perform on a stage but instead on the floor, surrounded by the audience members’ chairs. At times, they are mere inches away. Or maybe it’s that the performances are so genuinely authentic. The script of Our Town does not call for Shakespearean monologues or heart-stopping romantic encounters. Instead, it requires actors who are able to make everyday life interesting enough to watch for hours on end, and these actors are able to do exactly that.
Performed by this talented, understated cast, the simple acts of stringing beans or doing algebra are actually interesting. Or maybe it’s the narration. David Cromer, who also directs this production, plays the Stage Manager, who dictates exactly what happens in the life of Grover’s Corner. He is a matter-of-fact, non-nonsense man, just a touch sarcastic and the perfect guide to take us through the lives of these characters.
The pivotal action of Our Town centers around Emily Webb (Jennifer Grace) and George Gibbs (James McMenamin), next-door neighbors who eventually marry. Emily is an intelligent, painfully earnest girl who anxiously asks her mother one afternoon if she is pretty enough to warrant attention from anyone. George is a bashful, good-natured boy who is just slightly dim-witted. The two share a innocent attraction that they don’t exactly know what to do with, but as they share help with algebra homework it is apparent the two will join the “almost everyone” in Grover’s Corner who get married. Subsequently, the panic the two both experience just before being married is almost painfully honest.
A wedding at age 19 does seem unusual, and throughout the production, it is quite clear how much Our Town has aged. But while it is old, it is not creaky. Unlike some of the many revivals popping up lately, this play has aged gracefully. And its underlying message of enjoying and appreciating life is timeless. So is the message that people never know how good they have it until it’s too late, delivered through Emily’s posthumous revelation in an achingly resonant performance. During this scene, it is also revealed that Mrs. Gibbs (Lori Myers), who had been pondering selling a family heirloom and spending the money on a trip to France instead decided to leave the money to her son and daughter-in-law. This revelation is bittersweet, causing the audience to wonder if she denied herself herself the chance to live life fully, or did she simply feel content with what she had right at home? This question is uncomfortably familiar, causing everyone, including this critic, to squirm slightly in her seat, and showing just how powerful this simple, bittersweet production is.