At Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of Our Town, for one brief evening, we were all residents of Grover’s Corners.
Thornton Wilder’s play is about small-town life in New Hampshire in the early 1900s. Nothing terribly exciting happens. The sun comes up, goes down, it’s a nice day. People go about their business. That’s the measured rhythm of life in Grover’s Corners. People in Grover’s Corners don’t exhibit much emotion, unless you pay attention and listen between the lines.
I wasn’t sure exactly when the show started because it was a long time before the lights dimmed. One minute Eric Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, was on stage talking to us, and the next minute the Stage Manager (Jeff Still) was filling us in on the layout and history of Grover’s Corners. It’s an odd sensation, sitting in a brightly lit theater while the show is in progress. But it enhanced the feeling of being a citizen of Grover’s Corners. We could look around and clearly see our neighbors, as if looking through their kitchen windows.
There are no props other than two kitchen tables; some bowls full of string beans that Mrs. Webb and her daughter, Emily (Linsey Page Morton), are snapping; a piano for the town choir; and a flashlight for Constable Warren (Jerry Genochio). All actions such as cooking and throwing the daily paper are pantomimed. Even the milkman’s (Howie Newsome) horse is pantomimed. This was a radical move in 1938 when Our Town was first performed, and audience members freaked. Once you settle in to the dialogue and story grabs you, it’s easy to forget the props.
Act 1 begins just about dawn on July 7, 1901. Doc Gibbs (Craig Benton) is returning home from delivering twins. Mrs. Gibbs (Stephanie Rae Roberts) and Mrs. Webb (Kati Brazda) are making breakfast in their respective homes, getting the kids ready for school.
Over coffee and snapping green beans after breakfast, Mrs. Gibbs tells Mrs. Webb how she’d like to see Paris some day. How people should visit someplace where they speak another language. But Doc Gibbs doesn’t see the value in travel.
Later, walking home at night after choir practice, Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Soames (Peggy Friesen) stop their gossip to marvel at the moonlight, “bright as day.” The bright moon interrupts the town’s rhythm. The women are so enchanted they don’t want to break the spell and go home and go inside, although Mrs. Gibbs knows Doc will complain she’s been out too late. (He does just that.)
Meanwhile, Emily Webb also notices the moon while helping George Gibbs (Derrick Trumbly), her classmate, with his homework. Both George and his father, Doc, seem embarrassed by the women’s romanticizing the moonlight and change the subject. This inability to communicate emotions is perfectly illustrated when George tries to tell Emily he loves her and wants to marry her, without saying those exact words. Emily, equally unable to articulate her emotions, accepts.
A primary theme of Our Town becomes clear in Act 3. It’s now 1913, and Emily has just died in childbirth. The funeral is over and the mourners gone. Emily’s spirit is hanging out with the other spirits, including Mrs. Soames and Mrs. Gibbs, who died while visiting Rebecca (Mariem Diaz), her daughter, in Ohio. She never made it to Paris.
Emily learns she can go back to her former life for a while, and dearly wants to despite warnings from the other spirits. She chooses her 12th birthday, February 11, 1899. Stage Manager opens the sliding doors at the back of the minimal set to reveal the kitchen in the Webb family home, fully realized in all its detail down to the chill in the air when Editor Webb opens the door. Mrs. Webb is at the stove cooking breakfast. I swear I could smell bacon.
Emily can hear her parents speaking but they cannot see or respond to her, except as they actually did on that day. She can only watch helplessly. Emily realizes she, her family, and everyone else in Grover’s Corners has never noticed what is going on around them. They have never taken a good look.
Hence, no props, just pantomime. We are all just going through the motions. Wilder is helping us remember that our lives are real, not our memories. Fulfill your dreams before you die. Visit Paris. Next time you’re captivated by the light of the moon, stop for a while. Don’t go home and go inside just yet.