As I sat in the Schottenstein Theater, ready to observe the final dress rehearsal before the Stern College Dramatic Society’s (SCDS) premiere of Our Town, I wondered how viewing this performance of Thornton Wilder’s renowned play would compare to my experience of reading and studying it in my English class in high school. Thornton’s play, written in 1938, is groundbreaking in its exploration of the art form of theater; the play consists of minimal scenery, and miming and acting replace the function of physical props. Moreover, the play merges past, present, and future, as the Stage Manager, played by Liorah Rubinstein, leads the audience into the lives of the townspeople of Grover’s Cove, an “ordinary” American town filled with “ordinary people.” The Stage Manager, along with the other characters, break the fourth wall as they address and interact with the audience. I was curious as to how this unique form of the production would play out in a live performance, and was amazed by the cast’s ability to transform the minimalist stage production into such an enthralling and penetrating performance.
Like the form of the play, the plot of Our Town is marked with a certain sense of simplicity, as it captures the routine moments of everyday life, while at the same time, also capturing the major life-cycle events of the town’s protagonists. The play is divided into three acts, and has two intermissions. In the first act of the play, “A Daily Life,” the Stage Manager introduces the audience to the setting and characters of the town, pointing to the imaginary houses, garden, river, and Church that the audience must conjure up in their minds together with the SCDS actors. The play focuses on the Webb and Gibbs families, and act two, “Love and Marriage” revolves around the love and marriage of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, played by Shoshy Ciment, and Leah Weintraub respectively. Though Our Town emphasizes the ordinariness of its characters, the SCDS actors embraced the nuance and humor of their roles so completely, that every town member featured was memorable, and delightful to watch on stage. While the actors themselves are captivating, their creative costumes, designed by Chana Ingber and Ruchi Gross, succeeded in transporting the audience to the play’s setting of an American rural town in the early 20th century.
While the first two acts of Our Town emphasize the ordinary parts of life, like the breakfast scenes, where the characters in both families eat the same imaginary meals, and engage in the same mundane conversations, it is the last act, “Death and Eternity,” that sheds another meaning onto the play. It begins with Emily’s funeral. In the SCDS adaption of the scene, the town members hold umbrellas at the funeral, the added prop contrasting interestingly with the minimal use of props throughout the play. The audience then realizes that the people sitting on chairs are the dead members of Grover’s Cove. The use of lighting in this scene also helped to create the illusion that the theater had suddenly transformed into a graveyard. The acting of the dead town members was both haunting and funny, as the actors perfectly maintained the persona of their characters, while managing to speak in more hushed, or ghost-like tones. As Emily joins the world of the non-living, she understands the beauty and value of those simple, everyday moments she had experienced in her life. Emily then revisits her twelfth birthday, now as a ghost, and finds it too unbearable to remain, because the living cannot see how precious each moment of being alive truly is.
As the final act ended, and the cast took their bows, I returned to my original thoughts. Of course, watching the SCDS performance of Our Town was an entirely different experience from reading it in high school. At the performance, rather than focusing on the words, the themes and theatrical details of the play stood out; the costumes, lights, and sound effects all brought the play to life. But mostly, it was the acting that transformed Our Town in the SCDS production. Sitting in the audience, I could sense how the play had impacted each member, how the story, and role each actor played was truly internalized and contemplated. It was this that added a whole new dimension to the SCDS production; in Thornton Wilder’s play about life and meaning, I also saw the everyday lives of YU students, the moments that pass us by, and the moments that we remember and hold onto. Through the production, the town of Grover’s Cove transformed for me into our everyday college lives. And to me, as the play ended, the bright, excited smiles of the talented cast mirrored Thornton’s message about the magic present within the everyday routines and cycles of life.