Writing in 1938, Brooks Atkinson, drama critic of the New York Times, described 'Our Town' as “one of the finest achievements of the current stage” and a “hauntingly beautiful play”. Powerful stuff for a play that dispensed with scenery, broke the convention of the fourth wall, and used a narrator to link scenes and fill in the background for the audience. The play went on to win a Pulitzer Prize making it's playwright, Thornton Wilder, unique in the history of that gong in that he won it for both a novel and two plays. Quite a feat.
The focus of the play is a small town called Grover's Corners in New Hampshire at the turn of the twentieth century. 'Our Town' is narrated by The Stage Manager, played here by Katie Castles. Since Wilder wanted to exclude as many theatrical trappings as possible, there is no scenery and the props are few and far between. Two sets of ladders act as the bedrooms of neighbouring childhood sweethearts George and Emily, for example.
The play is divided into three Acts: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Eternity. In the first act, we get a feel for the life of the inhabitants of Grover's Corners, 'a nice town'. And we get details about the make-up of the community, for example 86% are republicans and 85% are protestants. It's a 'very ordinary town', yet the citizens 'have pleasures of a kind'. The sense of community is almost tangible, but there are also indicators that times are changing. The auto-mobile is about to burst on the town, immigrants from Poland have settled in one area (Polish Town, as the locals call it) and some neighbours are beginning to 'lock their doors'. In act 2 the romance between George and Emily is confirmed when they get married, and the final act focuses on Emily's funeral after she dies giving birth.
Savio(u)r Theatre Company specialises in bringing together British and American artists through theatre. It was certainly a brave step to tackle a play with such a reputation, and a worthy endeavour to bring the piece to life once again. Watching the play, it's pretty obvious that both cast and director feel a close affinity for the piece, and there's a clear sense of strategic vision in Kate Gorman's direction which remains faithful to Wilder's original intentions. Songs are used extensively to varying effect, but I felt that more could have been made of sound effects throughout. Overall, it's quite a young cast which left me wondering if no-one at Grover's Corners managed to live past the age of about 40. Maybe that was true in the 1900s, but even so it felt like there was some imbalance in the casting. However, that imbalance is more than compensated for by the energy and enthusiasm from the large and well-orchestrated cast.
Even the most serious drama has lighter moments, hysterically funny situations and lines on occasions, but there's not much in Wilder's play that conjures more than a wry smile. But some of the other members of the audience seemed to find much more mirth in the play than I could discover. As a result, I felt the cast were beginning to respond to the laughter by trying, unnecessarily, to squeeze out a bit more humour.
Katie Castles as the stage manager keeps a brisk pace and has a friendly and welcoming manner. However, dressed in white shirt and black trousers, she seemed more like an efficient waiter than neighbourly guide. Zoë Swenson-Graham is distinctly impressive as Emily. She found just the right notes to make the last act compelling and poignant. And Michael Totton as George brings us close to tears when he appears at Emily's grave. In all, the final act is well-executed and very moving. If I have reservations about other aspects of the production, the team more than made up for them in the closing act.
It's often said that 'Our Town' is about making the most of life, living life to the full and squeezing every last drop out of our time on this planet. There's certainly something in that, but there's also much more lurking under the gloss coat of Wilder's seemingly gentle play. 'Some people are just not made for small town life' says one character, and in Simon Stimson, the church organist, we have an obvious outsider who certainly doesn't fit in. Similarly, Mrs Gibbs has the chance to visit France, but gives her money to Emily and George. And there's obvious concern about young people leaving school and getting hitched almost immediately thereafter. To my mind, what Wilder was saying was not only that you should live your life to the full, but live your life as you want to live it. And that's quite a different and a rather subversive, almost anti-society kind of idea.
'Our Town' is rarely produced, and being a Pulitzer prize-winning play from one of the twentieth century's great authors, it's worth seeing on that basis alone. But I also suspect that this version by Savio(u)r Theatre Company will mature as the run develops, and their obvious energy and affinity for Wilder's excellent play deserves to be rewarded.