Since it was published in 1938, Our Town has long been acclaimed as the quintessential American play. After its debut on Broadway, it was awarded the Pulitzer prize for American Drama.
By Angie Millard
So far so good but that was 85 years ago and Bryan Bounds is presenting it in York in what he describes as ‘this digital age’ and he sticks to Wilder’s original concept.
Its subject is small town American life used to explore wider concerns such as immortality and to show the audience that life is precious and fleeting. To do this Wilder uses three Acts covering the course of a life from birth to death. He introduces a character called the Stage manager, played by Rory Mulvihill who leads the narrative forward with complete control. He introduces other characters; comments on the action and describes the setting, much as a chorus in Greek plays do. Wilder uses white light and minimal sets. His actors mime the use of everyday objects to underline the theatricality while distancing the audience and are dressed in an approximation of contemporary costume. The stage manager demonstrates the characters’ scenes stopping and starting them as he wishes.
All this was a brand new way of presenting theatre in 1938 but today it is commonplace. Developments in lighting and sound have enabled directors to give an audience exciting effects while use of video and audio techniques mean that possibilities are endless. ‘Poor Theatre’ is therefore no longer the surprise it used to be and as an audience member in 2023 I found the play uninspiring. The contemporary costumes seemed drab and the people rather boring but as the narrative unfolded I was drawn into their narrow world and as a result I began to see a universality in their behaviours.
The story focuses on two families: Mr and Mrs Webb, played by Andrew Isherwood and Jess Murray, and the Gibbs, played by Thomas Miller and Juliet Waters, whose lives become intertwined by the marriage of their children. The actors showed us two contrasting couples: Isherwood playing a convincing small town intellectual, nervously assured, while Murray played a mother torn by the desire to equip her daughter for marriage. The look of conflicting emotions on her face during the children’s subsequent wedding was brilliantly shown; while Isherwood sat complacently by her side, Miller, however, utterly captures a simple direct man; he married a woman seen for the first time on their wedding day and who is devoted to his family. Waters plays a dependable and capable partner who somehow shows us strength and dedication through her daily life. The wedding scene is pivotal as is the scene in the local drug store when George Gibbs (the son, played by Frankie Bounds) has a heartfelt conversation with Emily (the daughter played by Emily Belcher) and their future is secured. Mulvihill appears effectively here as a female owner of the store and injects just enough humour. The couple deliver a remarkably nuanced performance during this crucial scene and are pitch perfect.
Thus throughout the first two Acts we follow their quiet lives. However, by the third act it all coalesces into a stunning piece of theatre which exposes our deepest concerns.
This next may be considered a spoiler so stop reading any more until you’ve seen the play. For those who don’t mind a pre-view, read on.
The director and actors, using six chairs and subdued lighting, take us to the cemetery and there the dead are seated still and silent. Wally Webb (Harrison Turner-Hazel) was killed in the trenches and sits with George’s sister Rebecca (Charlotte Hewitson) in still contemplation. Simon Stimson (Craig Newby) the alcoholic choirmaster who hanged himself in despair sits desolately while Natalie Smeaton, the village gossip, reflects cheerfully on Emily’s wedding, ‘the best I ever attended’. All contribute to the atmosphere, particularly Waters who advises Emily who died in childbirth to not return to earth where things are not what one expects.
Through the newly deceased Emily we see that in life ‘we don’t have time to look at one another’. Mulvihill pulls this together with a superbly delivered monologue and commentary on the scene. The whole company produces a moving and unsentimental statement, both sad and memorable. The description that Juliet Waters gives of the gradual slipping away from earthly concerns felt both resonant and strangely comforting. Upstage mourners huddle under umbrellas and only Emily shines in her white wedding gown.
It is important to stress that this is an ensemble piece: Damian M O’Connor and Patrick Gregan, as policemen, milkmen etc. are the glue that binds the piece together. Both are experienced actors.
Our Town plays until Saturday and is an enlightening glimpse into theatre history, well worth seeing!
Our Town is being performed at Theatre@41, Monkgate until 15 July 2023.