by Courtney Pitman
Dear Snarky Persons In My Life Who’ve Questioned My Choice To Study Sociology,
I’d like to invite you all to experience Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, which imparts the validity of sociology in a much more moving and poignant manner than I can ever dream of doing. Wilder’s three-act play, currently at Ford’s Theatre through February 24th in celebration of its 75th anniversary, does something most current-day storytellers would find incredulous: it assumes a lot of its audience. Like The Minimalist Tumblr theme, Our Town strips away almost any potential embellishment from its production—the actors don grey costumes and mime without props before a “set” that is simply matching white chairs—and still it asks theatergoers to pay for the entertainment, because Wilder’s simplistic account of three days in a small town is precisely.that.powerful.
That’s right, parent of my law school-bound friend, it turns out that the way in which people operate and interact with one another dominates and explains daily existence. As perhaps the very definition of a character study, Our Town proves this point without hitting you over the head with it. While the play centers on two neighboring families in early 20th century Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a town constantly alluded to by its own inhabitants as boring or typical, the audience meets a handful of other residents whose brief turns in the spotlight leave no less of an impact.
Emblematic of this is our introduction to Joe Crowell just minutes into the first act, an enthusiastic and friendly paperboy up before dawn in 1901 to complete his route. Moments later we learn that Joe later went to MIT on a full scholarship, graduated with honors, and then died in France in World War I. Boom. And so ends Joe Crowley’s role in the play. These subtle, consistent explosions propel Our Town forward solely on the back of its characters’ interactions and how they choose to live out their time. And these subtle, consistent explosions establish and maintain the cycle of life, love, and death as THE theme of Our Town. That these explosions are subtle, consistent, and effective, is essentially a quiet Post-It note to Michael Bay—and to you, my sophomore year finance-major fling—that says “Go fuck yourself.” Except Grover’s Corner is far too quaint for that sort of language.
The play achieves this unique omniscience through the use of Wilder’s Stage Manager character, who moderates and communicates the past, present, and future goings on directly and frankly to the audience. In the Ford’s Theatre production, Portia absolutely nails this “voice of God” role with biting sardonic timing. From her, the audience learns more about Grover’s Corners and its residents than would otherwise be possible from a present-tense dialogue or an intricate set, which allows the rest of the cast more freedom to act in the moment without having to worry about communicating context. All of the actors at Ford’s are up to the task, and Jenn Walker as Mrs. Gibbs and Craig Wallace as Mr. Webb deliver particularly notable performances.
Our Town picks one random example of normalcy by highlighting the romance of teenagers George Gibb and Emily Webb in a typical New England town. It follows them through Daily Life (Act I) via a day in 1901, and Love and Marriage (Act II) via a day in 1904. As the Stage Manager says of Act III, “I reckon you can guess what that’s about.” Through its familiar normalcy, my parents’ skeptical neighbor, Our Town conveys the magnitude of the simple choices we make every day, yielding the relationships and events which define our lives. One of the departed characters laments in the most powerful scene of the show, “Do any humans realize life while they live it?”