Pondering the way we are
The UB Theater Department's production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town last Wednesday was a glimpse into American life at the turn of the 20th century. There was one particular aspect that caught on-lookers' attention – questioning life.
Life, according to the play and philosophers alike, is an enigma. No one truly understands it. Humans go through life disheveled and blind to its surroundings, and as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, humans are "borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Yet the play also maintains that life is a miracle. Had it not left out a few important details, the play could be mistaken as optimistic. It takes an ambiguous approach toward life and leaves the audience to decide how to interpret the concept of "the mind of God."
Our Town, which premiered in 1938, takes place in the fictional New England town of Grover's Corners over the span of 12 years. Fully aware of the play's existence, the stage manager (Eva Tashjian) narrates the events, pointing out key details, events and characters in colorful anecdotes.
The play focuses on two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs.
Dr. Gibbs (Edward C. McCole) is the town doctor, and his wife (Maria Pedro) is an ordinary caring mother of their teenage son George (Justin Ryan). Everyone knows everyone else, so it is no surprise that George's outstanding baseball skills are the talk of the town.
Mr. Webb (Gregory James) is the town newspaper editor. While his daughter Emily (Sarah Blewett) is an outstanding student, it does her no good considering middle-class women didn't enter the workforce at that time. Her insecurities create problems that illustrate the confusion and frustration of teenage life.
Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, George and Emily fall in love and get married. For the play's purposes, what follows next is a natural cycle of life: death and eternity.
Our Town, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a meta-theatrical exercise in philosophy. Like a Greek chorus, the stage manager gleefully, if not condescendingly, guides the audience through the various quirks and peccadilloes of the town's denizens. Though it doesn't get tiring, one wonders what the stage manager's motives are.
The play fails to establish an objective truth. Despite the "mind of God" comment made by Emily, no one knows how to get into God's head.
Is God real? Is God dead? Do humans create him, and if so, where can we find him?
These may seem like esoteric questions, but they are exactly the kinds of questions the play wants you to ponder. Because the play does not provide any answers, there is a feeling of frustration and annoyance at curtain close.
Our Town is essentially plot-less and functions as an existential, open-ended question. It is not exactly a wasteland – American life is portrayed very positively – but it does have the anxiety that characterized the post-WWI drama.
Like Eugene O'Neill, Wilder scoffs at the notion that human life can be figured out through a book, a job, or a certain way of thinking. What's left is a sack of questions that, at best, can only be pondered.
The production's minimalist staging and good acting add to the intensity of the work. Our Town was a good choice, not because it provides all the answers, but because it raises the questions.