Every classic play comes with its own set of commonplaces—those little hooks we pick up in school, giving us the shorthand we need so we can appear at least halfway educated. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is autobiographical. The girl in The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams’s sister. Picnic is by a closeted gay guy. Nothing happens in Waiting for Godot, but nothing is the point because it’s absurd. Shakespearean English isn’t so hard to understand once you get the hang of it. That sort of thing.
So what are the commonplaces for Our Town, the undeniably classic 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner by Thornton Wilder, getting a solid, intriguingly revisionist revival now from Redtwist Theatre? Well, we can say it’s elegiac (excellent word for a commonplace). We might add that it’s a tender look back at small-town New England, where life was allegedly homey, kindly, quiet, stoic, certain, mostly Protestant, and entirely white.
And we’d be right, up to a point. Set in tiny, mythical Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, during the first two decades of the 20th century, Wilder’s masterpiece feels like a requiem for an America that few even among its original audience might’ve experienced but were happy enough to believe in when what waited for them outside the theater was a world already deep in the Great Depression and on its way to war.
The play’s narrator, known as the Stage Manager, maps things out for us: “Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station. . . . Polish Town’s across the tracks, and some Canuck families.” The rest divides up according to Christian denominations: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Unitarians close in, Baptists “down in the holla’ by the river,” and a Catholic church for the Poles and Canadians. The Baptists of the flood plain may be black, but, if so, no further hint is given. Jews, Muslims, Latinos, and such just plain don’t figure.
The town’s two leading families as far as we’re concerned are the Gibbses and the Webbs, each moderately prosperous, with its weary patriarch (Dr. Gibbs, the general practitioner, and Mr. Webb, who publishes the biweekly local paper), its no-nonsense matriarch (who addresses her husband by his honorific rather than his first name), and its pair of children (one male, one female). The elder Gibbs child, George, is Biff Loman without the Oedipal issues: a big-hearted high school sports star who struggles with math but loves the outdoor life and has a plan in place to buy a farm. He’s sweet on the elder Webb child, Emily, who excels in school but has no plans other than George. He declares his affection for her by carrying her books and buying her an ice cream soda (as distinguished from a phosphate, which costs less.) We’ll see their wedding in the second of the play’s three acts.
Given all the sexism, white privilege, you-name-it oozing from a mere overview of Our Town, it’s not surprising that Redtwist chose to open its production to all the people apparently excluded from Wilder’s script. Under director James Fleming, the cast features a black artist, Nicole Michelle Haskins, as Mrs. Webb; a gender-fluid artist, Jaq Seifert, as George; and several artists with Latinx surnames in various roles—among them the sweetly self-possessed Elena Victoria Feliz as Emily. It doesn’t stop there, either: hearing-impaired Richard Costes plays the Stage Manager, using his own voice and stylized gestures that amount to a kind of ASL lite. Joel Rodriguez performs the role of the milkman, Howie Newsome, from a motorized wheelchair.
Under the circumstances, it actually comes across as odd that Doc and Mrs. Gibbs are embodied by white actors (Brian Parry and Jacqueline Grandt, both engagingly folksy). What’s odder still, though, is that Fleming’s casting does next to nothing to transform, much less subvert, the play. Certainly, seeing such variety onstage heightens our awareness of the many constituencies Wilder didn’t contemplate referencing back in 1938—the people who couldn’t have a home in Grover’s Corners. Yet his writing manages to accommodate them all just the same, for two reasons. The first is purely mechanical: by using a narrator, dispensing with realistic scenery, and explicitly acknowledging the cast members as actors, Wilder obviated the need for verisimilitude, ethnic or otherwise. The second is just this: that the ultimate subject of Our Town is life and death and the fact that latter comes inevitably to anyone who gets to experience the former. Nobody gets excluded from that. v