For many years I aspired to direct, and to play the role of the “Stage Manager” in Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town. I had my chance in 1998, when I was pastor of St. Patrick in Girard and St. Mary in Farmersville. I was able to assemble a cast which included students of St. Isidore’s School in Farmersville, adult parishioners, and also my father, who was once on the stage as a student at Decatur High School.
I am revisiting my memories of this event as I read Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ in the 21st Century by Howard Sherman. It is a series of interviews with people who have been involved in productions of this play in recent times. Don’t let the occasional rude language distract you from memories of actors and others who have taken on various roles in their productions. I was particularly interested in reading about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who were involved in a production on Long Island in 2002.
Our Town seems to have a reputation as a sweet, sentimental, and inconsequential bit of theater — notwithstanding its winning a Pulitzer Prize. In fact, I have always found the play to be the absolute opposite of sentimental. It is brutal in its analysis of how you and I experience life, and of how much we miss.
Without presenting spoilers, I will give you an overview of the play. The first act is a presentation of a typical day in Grover’s Corners, N.H., in 1901. The second act is organized around a 1904 wedding of two people we had been introduced to in the first act. The third and final act must not be described beyond the Stage Manager’s note at the top of Act II: “I reckon you can guess what that’s about.”
Grover’s Corners is white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant — with the exception of “Polish Town,” where the Catholic church is found. In spite of the demographics, Wilder succeeds in universalizing the themes of his play. At choir practice in the Congregational church, the director at one point chides his singers: “Get it out of your head that music’s only good when it’s loud. You leave loudness to the Methodists. You couldn’t beat ‘em, even if you wanted to.”
Why do I love this play? I find that it attacks the dichotomy we impose on human existence: between supposed “ordinary” and “extraordinary” experiences. I have always been puzzled by an expression we sometimes hear — that someone is going to apply some new habit “in one’s daily life.” My question is: When am I not in my daily life? Daily life is all we have. This play is a call to us to look deeply at the extraordinary beauty of ordinary moments which people share. We gladly accept the observation of the Stage Manager: “Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”
I cannot close without remembering Brother Joel Marc Rousseau, FFSC, who died on Feb. 20. We worked together in our diocesan Office for Tribunal Services, where he was ecclesiastical notary. He was a devoted and joyful servant of the People of God.