Summary: Set in 1901 and written in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s classic American play Our Town chronicles daily life, love, and death in the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The play is performed almost entirely without props or sets. In this eerily vacant space, Wilder shifts our gaze to the finite nature of our lives and the bonds of love, family and community which elevate our existence and even have the power to transcend death.
Why this is The BEST: Act One begins with “daily life”: mothers making breakfast, children hurrying to school and the milkman on his daily rounds. As the characters mime all their actions, the audience begins to reckon with how much of our attention is normally consumed by material objects. In a space devoid of things, the intangible aspects of life take center stage. With nothing else to distract us, we notice how quickly time passes and how valuable human connection is. COVID has offered us a similar experience this year by distilling our lives down to the essentials. Though we have lost so much, we have also gained the chance to discover what truly matters.
Our Town culminates in another theatrical thought experiment devised to shift the audience’s perspective. The third act takes place in a cemetery, yet the dead are present, sitting in rows of chairs facing the audience. Soon, they welcome one of the main characters who has recently died, Emily Webb. She joins them, but is not ready to accept her place among them. Rather, she asks to return to the land of the living for just one day, but is warned by the others that the experience will be painful. When she insists, they counsel her: “Choose an unimportant day, at least. Choose the least important day of your life. It will be important enough.” Only the dead are aware of the endless opportunities that exist in even the most ordinary day, and how they can never be recaptured once they are gone.
Emily chooses her 12th birthday, confident that it will be a happy occasion, and the play comes full circle to the daily life of the opening act. Now, through the lens of loss, each moment and interaction is infused with poignant significance. As Emily watches her mother making breakfast, the local policeman on his rounds, and her father returning from a business trip, she is in agony at the “blindness” of the living people who move through their lives without valuing the seemingly mundane moments of their existence. She soon begs to take her place among the dead, proclaiming: “I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”
Before she returns, she pauses to offer one last ode to the ordinary, saying goodbye to this newly precious world, to “Mama’s sunflowers… and food and coffee” – all the joy and beauty and sustenance that we take for granted as we worry and hurry through our lives.
She ends with a farewell to “sleeping and waking up,” in effect begging the audience to “wake up” and understand that our lives are more valuable and more limited than we realize. Her speech is also a bold reminder of the theme of Modeh Ani — having our souls returned to us every day is indeed an unfathomable blessing. After watching the play, the audience is struck by the truth of this epiphany, but without ritual to anchor the realization, we would lose hold of it in the rush of our daily lives, much like the characters in the play.
Left only with her lament, Emily finally turns to the Stage Manager (the character who narrates the play) and asks: “Do any human beings realize life while they live it, every, every minute?” He responds gravely: “No. The saints and the poets, maybe, they do some.” Both art and religion offer rare lenses through which humans can glimpse the ineffable truths of life, even while we are alive. They do so by elevating the mundane, offering insight and creating moments in which we transcend the physical realm. Through the magical medium of theatre, the play Our Town offers its audience this profound and transformative experience, inviting us to view our lives with heightened meaning so that we do not squander them by “walking through the course of habit like a blind man in darkness” (Mesilat Yesharim 2:1).
Suzanne Socken is co-chair of the English Department at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto