A Remembrance by Julian Wiles, Charleston Stage’s Founder and Producing Director
“You brought me all the way to New York to see a play without scenery?” That was what my Mom said back in 1988. I had brought her to New York as a Christmas present to see several Broadway shows, the first of which was the fiftieth anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize-winning Our Town. “Just wait,” I said to her as she gazed on the bare almost empty stage. “You’ll see, there’s more here than meets the eye, and it’s a love story so keep your eye on George and Emily.” And in a few moments as the play began, and as Emily Webb and George Gibbes fell in love, my Mom, as well as the rest of the audience, was mesmerized by the extraordinary power of this simple play—one of the greatest American plays ever written. It is my favorite play.
Sadly, too many people only know Our Town from a dreary high school literature class and have never seen an actual performance of this classic on stage. And of course, Our Town was written not to be read but to be performed.
In 1938, Our Town was considered revolutionary, radical, and avant garde, because playwright Thornton Wilder brazenly discarded scenery (or most of it), did away with props, and dared to present a play without any of the glitzy “window dressing” or dancing girls that audiences had come to expect. After all, this was the era of the Ziegfeld Follies and Busby Berkley musicals, so to strip away all of the spectacle for a Broadway show was startling to audiences. And even today, in an era where multi-million dollar Broadway musical spectaculars like Wicked and The Lion King are the norm, the simplicity of Our Town retains its special power to move audiences. In fact, Our Town remains one of the most produced plays on earth.
There was a method to Wilder’s no scenery, no props madness. He set this simple story of George and Emily on a nearly bare stage because he wanted us not to look at the scenery but to focus our eyes on something else. And that something else is everyday life— for it’s within everyday life that we actually live. Wilder wanted us to see that too often we take so much of our day-to-day lives for granted— breakfast each day, racing off to work or school, the landmarks in our lives— falling in love, marriage, children, friendships all taken for granted. By focusing on the seemingly mundane day-to-day tasks, he wanted us to see the simple wonder of being alive on this earth. But Wilder doesn’t sugarcoat this in a “just stop and smell the roses” sentimentality, he shows us there are also disappointments in life too, that many hopes and dreams remain unfilled. Such is life.
And that is the magic of Our Town. Like all great plays, Our Town invites us to look at life from different angles and, in doing so, gain new perspectives of what we too often take for granted.
Charleston Stage’s new production with its fine cast under Associate Artistic Director Marybeth Clark’s direction will bring Our Town off the page, out of your memory of that long ago stodgy English class, and on the stage where it belongs.
In the end, my Mom was not disappointed when she first saw Our Town in New York back in 1988 and at 92 years old now, is looking forward to seeing George and Emily fall in love once more. She already has her tickets. I know she won’t be disappointed.
Performances of Our Town run Feb. 5 – 23 at the Historic Dock Street Theatre. For tickets, click here.