“Do any human beings ever realise life while they live it?’ This is the question at the heart of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s ostensibly a play about a small American town called Grover’s Corners, set at the start of the 20th century. But it’s not just about that particular town or that particular time. Our Town is a play about the human condition and has a great deal to say to a Royal Exchange audience in October 2017. Sarah Frankcom’s production recognises this – and the outcome is terrific.
Our Town (by Thornton Wilder) was written in 1938 and has become something of an American classic. It has three Acts, each focussing on a particular stage in the human life cycle: birth (and daily life), marriage, and death. It is narrated – and to some degree choreographed – by a Stage Manager/Narrator, who addresses the audience and informs and explains the ‘action’. The word ‘action’ may give the wrong impression, since nothing really ‘happens’ in the play: its deliberate focus is the ‘ordinary’ – the everyday minutiae of people’s lives. We see the regular, ordinary events in the life of a small community repeated in each Act: milk is delivered, residents chat about the weather, children are called down to breakfast by harassed mums (who will later escape briefly from their domestic drudgery by attending choir.) We follow the developing relationship between the son and daughter of two of the town’s families – but there is no claim that these individuals (George and Emily) are particularly ‘special’, and we don’t get to know them especially well. They are ‘every-man/woman’ going through universally familiar phases in their lives. A little local colour is introduced through a choir-master with a drink problem who is the source of much gossip – but although we are told (on several occasions) that he has “seen a peck of trouble”, we never find out what that trouble might have been.
Through these ‘ordinary’ townsfolk and their particular, ‘ordinary’ lives, Wilder gives us a glimpse of the universal value of human experience and, most poignantly, the way in which we undervalue its very ordinariness. In an extremely moving final Act, we meet some of the residents after their death, re-evaluating life in the light of their mortality. Realising how fleeting it all was, they wish they could go back and truly ‘see’ it. As Emily says: “So all that was going on and we never noticed.” It may have been written in 1938, but such a critique seems uncomfortably relevant to a culture in which we arguably ‘see’ even less than we used to: sitting across from each other in restaurants checking out Facebook, or texting someone else, or planning our next appointment. It seems like Wilder is before his time as an advocate for mindfulness, except that he seems to suggest, rather bleakly, that the absence of mindfulness is simply a universal feature of the human condition – that to be human is to be ‘ignorant and blind’ to the real value of each moment and each interaction.
The universality of Our Town is also conveyed by the absence of naturalism in set design. While Wilder recognises that our lives are all rooted in specific communities, his play insists on ‘no scenery’ apart from tables and chairs to represent features of ‘Grover’s Corners’. In the preface to the text he makes it clear that this is intended to liberate the play’s message from the confines of time and place. However, rather than completely abstracting and thereby universalising the piece, Frankcom’s production uses a range of devices to re-specify the play, associating it not with New Hampshire of the 1900s, but with Manchester in 2017. Members of the audience are invited to ‘watch’ the play from tables placed on the stage, and when we enter the theatre they are socialising casually with each other and the actors. They remain on stage once the play begins and become part of the set – a vivid visual statement that this play is situated in ‘OUR town’. The costumes are contemporary and the actors are therefore indistinguishable from the audience with whom they are sharing the space. The house lights stay on for most of the first Act, ensuring the broader audience’s sense of inclusion in the event. And, finally, Frankcom uses colour blind casting, as well as selecting deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah to play Mrs Soames (whose joyous signing during the wedding scene is one of the more delightful moments of the play). In doing so, she presents us with a town we can recognise, for it mirrors the diversity of our own.
In all these ways, Frankcom seems to be appropriating Our Town for Manchester. It feels like a bold move, and it may not sit comfortably with all. But the universality of the play’s message, together with the clear lines she has drawn to this particular audience, make this 80-year old play feel immediate and powerful. Wilder himself wanted theatre to produce work that the audience could ‘believe in’: by that criterion alone, I think he would have been very happy with this production.