According to a woman sitting behind me at the Broad Stage on Sunday afternoon, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is performed at least once a day somewhere in the United States. The middle aged couple next to me remembered reading Our Town in high school, but they were a little fuzzy on the details. I first encountered Our Town on an episode of Growing Pains. Or maybe it was The Wonder Years. Either way, cultural fragments and countless community theater productions have convinced us that this Pulitzer Prize winning play is all about small town nostalgia. Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity in a small New England town at the turn of the century. Those were the days.
I have a problem with small town nostalgia because, unlike most audience members at the Broad, I am from a modern day equivalent of Grover’s Corners: Albemarle, North Carolina. Population: 15,489. A professor from the nearby Pfeiffer University could recount an exciting history of Albemarle, from the tribes of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago to the 20th century textile mills to the country music star Kellie Pickler. The editor of the Stanly News and Press could easily quote the editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel: “Our young people here seem to like it well enough. Ninety percent of ’em graduating from high school settle down right here to live – even when they’ve been away to college.”
I am part of the 10% that left Albemarle after graduating from college – and part of the <1% that left North Carolina entirely. My history of Albemarle is just a little different from the histories of those still living there. I grew up in a town without a bookstore or a coffee shop, but with a Confederate soldier statue standing guard by my church. I spent hours in dance and piano lessons and buried myself in the books and music and movies that were available, trying to dream my way out of this culturally stunted town since elementary school. A favorite Albemarle anecdote really says it all: At the turn of the century, the city built an opera house that held live performances from 1908 to 1913, was converted to a movie theater from 1914 to 1915 … and became an annex to the undertaker’s shop by 1916.
Because of my small town background, I have always been wary of Our Town – but David Cromer’s production amplifies the play’s embedded critique of small town life to strike a necessary balance between nostalgia and criticism. Cromer’s direction restores nuance, depth, and detail to a play that too often falls into idyllic cliche. His production made me see Our Town as if for the first time. In fact, the Sunday matinee sent me spinning through a spectrum of heightened emotions that I am still teasing out.
To begin, I was pleasantly taken aback at how pointed Cromer makes the critique of small town life in Our Town. Mrs. Gibbs’ (Kati Brazda) thwarted dream of a vacation to Paris, France, stings like never before. Brazda punches the plea: “Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.” Employing a female stage manager (the naturally luminous Helen Hunt) draws heightened attention to the confined roles for women in Grover’s Corners; Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb cook three meals a day, clean house, and care for their families for decades – without a day off or a single nervous breakdown. The Angeleno audience also participates in the criticism of small town life through their knowing laughter, recognizing all that Grover’s Corners lacks – particularly in the way of culture.
What happens to those who are interested in “culture” in a small town like Grover’s Corners? My eyes were continually drawn away from the primary playing space and up to the misfit artist Simon Stimson (Jonathan Mastro), poised at an upright piano in the balcony of the Broad. This gifted musician grunts and groans his way through teaching an amateur church choir to sing “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” He pounds out the individual vocal parts, stops and starts, all the while growing increasingly tipsy and irritable about his incompetent singers. When he is not scandalizing the women by getting drunk during rehearsal, Stimson is a spectral presence to the main action of the play. The isolated genius slumps over his piano to compose. He occasionally picks out dissonant modernist music that unsettles any potential utopian vision of Our Town. Quite simply, “Some people ain’t made for small-town life.”
Though the teaching may be tedious, Simon Stimson’s work in Grover’s Corners is not in vain. The church choir is a bastion of culture in this small town, and the singers’ voices join in perfect harmony to accompany some of the play’s most affecting moments with familiar hymns. This kind of culture may not suit Simon, but it is undeniably a culture of great value and worth – emphasizing community as much as artistry.
Small towns do have their own pleasures. The sound of snapping beans tossed into a wide metal bowl during Act I triggered memories of gossiping in my grandmother’s kitchen while helping to prepare the vegetables for dinner some summer nights in Albemarle. As the fresh beans simmered on the stove, my little sister and I would convince Gog to play beauty parlor. We would poke our skinny little fingers into the holes of the old rotary phone in the back room and call Gog to make an appointment for a hair-wash in the kitchen sink. Gog would take the weight of my head in her hands, lather the Prell into a heavy hat of suds, then pour a smooth and steady stream of water over my hair until all the soap washed down the drain with a satisfied gurgle.
My childhood stability in Albemarle was both a blessing and a curse, coupling comfort and security with a stifling sense of stasis. I have only grown to appreciate it in retrospect, at a physical and temporal distance.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”
“No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”
I think David Cromer does.
My most visceral reaction to Our Town came not during the production, but immediately afterwards. The house lights came up. Staring at one another from across the narrow thrust stage, the audience continued applauding beyond the curtain call. We gradually realized that the cast would not be returning for a second bow … but we lingered in the theater for a prolonged moment of communal appreciation. With our senses newly attuned from an awe-inspiring Act III, we began to take in the sights and sounds and smells surrounding us: the wrinkled faces and the silk shawls, the crisp applause covering a few sniffles, the pleasant perfume wafting from a few seats down. Somehow, we had failed to notice these rich and wondrous details before. We had even failed to notice that we had become a “we,” a temporary community established in and through the theater. A small town of our own, now dispersing.
I noticed the gravel crunching under my feet as I ambled back to my car with the warm Sunday afternoon sun beating down on me. Before pulling out of the parking lot, I called my parents back in Albemarle, in the same house where I spent the first 17 years of my life. And I began describing what I had seen. The full impact of David Cromer’s production didn’t hit me until I reflected on it, until I tried to explain the beauty and wonder Act III to my family. And then the tears started. I don’t get nostalgic, I don’t get nostalgic, I don’t get nostalgic.
I was kind of nostalgic.
I think we too often create false divides between small town and big city. I feel more a part of a community here in Los Angeles than I ever did in Albemarle; I felt a part of a community on Sunday at the Broad Stage. We also create false divides between high and low culture; it even bothered me a little that Cromer elevated Stimson above the ground-level playing space, as if the musician were meant for loftier things than what Grover’s Corners could offer. The truth is, Stimson was just meant for different things. I know because I was meant for different things.
I live out a daily contradiction of loving and hating “my town” of Albemarle, NC. Knowing that I was meant to leave but others were meant to stay. Feeling blessed by the opportunities a “big city” has afforded me but regretting how much I miss in my family’s lives. Peeling back the layers, David Cromer’s production of Our Town embodied the complicated and contradictory relationship that arises at the intersection of where I grew up and where I live now, who I was and who I am becoming. For a moment on Sunday, I think I realized life. And that is a rare gift.