Last week at the Highlander Theatre the Department of Theatre and Dance preformed a production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” The play was specially chosen to honor professor and theatre director Richard Herman. This was his last production before retiring in May after 31 years of working at UCM.
Alongside “Death of a Salesman” or “The Streetcar Named Desire,” “Our Town” is considered to be one of the greatest American plays of all time. Set in the small, simple town of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, the story follows the lives of several residents from their childhood into adulthood. The play is set in three acts: daily life; love and marriage; followed, of course, by death and eternity.
The fourth wall, a term originating in theatre – transcending into film and television – that means there is an invisible wall between the characters and the audience. A fourth-wall break is when the characters directly address the audience. Fourth-wall breaks are featured throughout “Our Town.” In fact, the main character is the Stage Manager, who guides the audience through the world of Grover’s Corners – he’s not the real stage manager, of course. Often, he will talk directly to the audience, bringing in guest speakers and even playing other characters.
The play intentional uses props from previous Herman productions, besides a few door frames and chairs, the stage is almost empty. The buildings of Grover’s Corners are imaginary. The original script requires: no curtain, set, scenery and minimal use of props, according to one of the original copies. This may seem like a bizarre premise, but after watching the play for a while you fully accept the concept. Honestly, I can’t picture Grover’s Corners with real buildings.
Now why is “Our Town” like this you may ask? Well, it’s because Wilder wanted to create a more personal viewing experience for the theatre-goer. Wilder said “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind – not in things, not in scenery,” according to GoTeensWriters.com. Fourth-wall breaks are usually done for comedic effect, and while there are a few fourth-wall breaks meant as jokes, in “Our Town,” it’s mainly done to create a serious experience.
The idea of destroying the boundary between the fictional characters and the audience isn’t that uncommon. The film “Dogville” has a similar premise, although “Our Town” came out sixty years earlier.
First published in 1938, and taking place in 1901 to 1913, “Our Town” is a little dated. That doesn’t mean it’s not relatable. Many of the themes of the play are timeless, the play handles themes about small town life, and life in general, in such a universal way that’s why “Our Town” is still popular. It has also experienced international success, because people in different countries can relate to its subject matter. After all, “Our Town” could take place in any town.
The acting in this production was good. Especially, considering the limitations the play places on the performers. Because the script requires minimal use of props, the actors would often use invisible objects, whether they were gardening tools or a whole cow.
“Our Town” also has some limitations on their acting. Thornton Wilder said he wanted his play performed “without sentimentality or ponderousness – simply, dryly and sincerely,” according to Broadwayworld.com. Basically, the actors had to fight their instincts to add mannerisms to their roles.
In my personal interpretation of the play, I felt the occasional dull conversation was intentional. Think about it, how exciting are the conversations you usually have in your daily life.
Despite the play beginning with comedy, about halfway through the second half “Our Town” becomes very serious. To be fair, that is something the Stage Manager tells you directly. For further warning, this play might make you cry.
The overall message of the play is that life shouldn’t be wasted. It sounds like a preachy message that you’ve heard a hundred times before, but trust me, the play handles this message in a very thoughtful way.
I really liked how each act began and ended. Picture it: as everyone sits down and the lights go out; the big, service door at the back of the stage begins to rise. As its being raised, the cast and crew stand silently. Then they walk out onto the dimly lit stage and set up for the act – putting the slow astronaut walk from “Armageddon” to shame in the process. When the act was over, the cast would do the same but in reverse. Granted, this kind of entering and exiting is part of the script. Still, I wish all plays started and ended with such ostentation.
“Our Town” is a great play and the theatre department did a great job of bringing it to life. It was one of the most unique viewing experiences I’ve had so far, and I hope I’ll see more plays like it. “Our Town” is both a lasting production and send off of theater director Richard Herman.