Our Town has hit our town, and it feels a lot like most towns.
Thornton Wilder’s avant-garde 1938 play relates how, in a seemingly humdrum and uneventful world, we often overlook how lucky we are to be here, and that most folk never realise it before they drop off the perch.
The Black Swan Theatre Company version of the play, part of the Perth Festival, is definitely original, with the production taking place in the State Theatre Centre courtyard; kind of a Theatre in the Round approach, with the audience in bleachers, a la basketball game.
As well as using professional actors, Director Clare Watson has employed people from various walks of life to make up the cast. (For example, The West Australian’s theatre critic David Zampatti plays the newspaper proprietor, with aplomb.) It works, and certainly gives the production the everyday, down home persona it requires to be effective.
The story opens with the good denizens of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, going about their ordinary, almost excruciatingly routine, daily activities.
There’s the milkman doing his rounds, the local newspaper editor waxing sage, a dull academic spouting about the geological history of the region, chattering housewives, the town drunk short-tacking across stage, primary school urchins drifting through with trifling questions and other townsfolk merrily interacting.
The audience becomes acquainted with the Gibbs and Webb clans who, according to the stage notes, symbolise “ordinary people who make the human race seem worth preserving and represent the universality of human existence.”
The observant patron may beg to differ on the first assertion in this phrase, but would probably agree with the latter. You could meet the same people three houses down your street in any suburb, in any community, in any century, but you probably wouldn’t go out of your way.
Yet therein lies the rub – and the premise of Our Town.
Clearly Mr Wilder had tongue firmly planted in cheek as he knocked out the first act of this Pulitzer Prize winner on the old Remington Portable Model 5. (By the way, Grover’s Corner is based on Peterborough, a New Hampie hamlet where the celebrated scribe often spent his summers.)
Back on stage, focus soon starts to sharpen on the evolving relationship between teens George Gibbs and Emily Webb.
Act Two opens a few years later on their wedding day, with its attendant preparations and nerves, and we are also enlightened via retrospective about George and Emily’s high school courtship, which was up and down, as they are. The nuptials are consummated and all seems hunky dory.
But nine years later we find ourselves at Emily’s funeral.
The ghostly Emily questions what it is to live and die, and chooses to travel back through time to her 12th birthday. There, she is saddened about people and happenings she failed to notice or appreciate in the living state. The people at her birthday also seem to be bumbling through yet another routine day, oblivious to the wonders of existence.
Emily is then transported back to her own funeral, where a distraught George mourns at her tomb.
“They don’t understand, do they?” she says of the living.
And that, folks, is what the playwright was also saying: Appreciate life, no matter how mundane it sometimes seems, as it is special and we humans are lucky to be here at all.
The cast is wired for sound and the audience listens through headphones, which was a great relief, as on opening night Northbridge was absolutely heaving with a combination of Fringe, Festival and Chinese New Year high-decibel sonic dissonance. Yet we townsfolk were lost in our own Our Town.
The play grows on the audience as it unfolds and Black Swan has done a commendable job with a production that, in its day, was groundbreaking in style, structure and content. A number of plays about the American narrative in the same genre soon followed, but Wilder was the first.
So, slip the dreary bonds of the daily grind, choof off into your town, and take in Our Town for a fun night out.
More info and bookings at: https://www.bsstc.com.au/plays/our-town
- Director: Clare Watson
- Set & Costume Designer: Tyler Hill
- Lighting Designer: Chloe Ogilvie
- Sound Designer/Composer: Russell Goldsmith
- Assistant Director: Katt Osborne
- Jonathan Paxman: Rhythmos Choir
- Abbie-lee Lewis
- Ian Michael
- Shari Sebbens