Common ground in Shakespeare Theater’s comforting “Our Town”
“He wrote a letter to Jane and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America… Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; Earth; the solar system; the universe; the Spirit of God–that was on the envelope… And the postman brought it anyhow. —Rebecca Gibbs, Our city
Our city, now at the Shakespeare Theatre, feels and sounds like a poem. Watching and listening to it is like being inside a soap bubble that is blown into the air and gently caught as it descends in a way that prevents it from bursting. As the play delves into its subject of life and death, the audience’s heart is treated with tender, gentle grace.
There are a few questions that this heartwarming and disarming production of Our city raises for me: 1) What does “the spirit of God” look like? and 2) Who is meant to be included in the word “our” in the title Our city?
An answer to the first question is offered as we enter the theater and are confronted with the set (Wilson Chin). What we see evokes both an arena of a Roman amphitheater that would be used for gladiator fights and the arches of the sanctuary of an American rural church. It is a harrowing and sacred space in which we witness both the important and the daily life of the citizens of Grover’s Corners. This suggests that in anything that happens in human life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, the stakes are always life and death, and we would do well to pay attention to where we are, who we are with, and what what we do in every moment.
Wikipedia refers to Thornton Wilder Our city as a “metatheatrical play in three acts”. I guess that means that not only Our city not trying to be anything other than an artificially constructed narrative; he prides himself on his artifice and he insists that we – the audience. – let us be aware of the creation of this artifice and that we are also in collusion with it.
The play is divided into three acts: Act I, Daily Life; Act II, Love and Marriage; Act III, Death and Eternity.
Throughout the play, the stage manager (Holly Twyford) provides context for the action and determines what action the audience can see and what action the people of Grover’s Corner can present in front of the audience. The stage manager often stops the action of the play when it is determined that the audience has enough information.
In Act I, we are introduced to all of the characters and their roles in the community, their dreams, aspirations and problems – especially the neighboring families the Gibbs and Webbs and their children George Gibbs (Jake Loewenthal) and Emily Webb (Chinna Palm)
In Act II, the stage manager ushers us into the life of Grover’s Corners three years after Act I. We come to the wedding of George and Emily. In flashbacks, the stage manager introduces the actors to the events of the past three years that lead us to the current wedding ritual.
In Act III, the stage manager places us at Grover’s Corners nine years after Act II in a cemetery where we hear of the dead as well as the mourners.
The play is not so much about the plot it presents as how and why a particular culture tells its stories to the people who are members of it – and to outsiders. By insisting on the complicity of the public in the creation of the artifice of this narration, the manager reminds us that we are responsible for the lives of these fictional characters and that their stories are indeed ours: “The real hero of this scene is not is not on stage at all, and you know who it is. Going further, the manager notes: “We all know that nature is interested in quantity, but I think it is also interested in quality, which is why I am at the ministry. Besides being a long poem, then, Our city is also a ritual, a parable, a sermon.
In his notes, Shakespeare Theatre’s resident playwright Dr Drew Lichtenberg asks the second question of who should be included in the “our” part of Our city front and center with his observation that in the first act of Our city, “the customs, conventions and beliefs of a very specific Anglo-Saxon white Protestant community are seen from an archaeological point of view.”
In describing the population of the area itself, the text of the coin notes: “Early Cotahatchee Native American tribes…no evidence before the tenth century of this era…hm…now entirely extinct…traces possible in three families. It is a recognition of the former occupants of the earth. Unlike our current land acknowledgment statements, which can sometimes be academic and cautious, Wilder’s statement leaves a roaring void around the phrase “entirely gone.”
This question seems particularly pointed in these days of rapid and violent reclamation of property, space and resources around the world by people who call themselves white Christians. Putting on this piece with its cultural specificity in a city that was once known as “Chocolate City” requires us to pay attention to it.
In his preface to the play, David Margulies notes that “in [Grover’s Corners’] specificity it becomes all the municipalities. Everywhere. Indeed, the play’s success across cultural boundaries around the world attests that it is something far greater than an American play: it is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive.
The uniformly excellent performances, beautifully directed by Alan Paul, made me feel lucky to live in an area where such skill and artistry is regularly available to us.
Due to COVID, there were six stunt doubles in the performance I attended: Erin Weaver (Professor Willard), Todd Scofield (Dr. Gibbs), Ryan Neely (Constable Warren), Quinn M. Johnson (Joe Crowell/Si Crowell), Kiana Johnson (Ensemble) and Elliot Dash (Mr. Webb). They all performed beautifully in their roles. Erin Weaver was hilarious in her portrayal of Professor Willard’s obsessive, corny passion for the geography and sociology of Grover’s Corners. Dash and Scofield as patriarchs of the Webb and Gibbs family were both effective and touching. Dash’s controlled, resonant bass expressed stability, accomplishment, responsibility, civic responsibility, and a masculine tenderness every time he spoke. Both Scofield and Dash had scenes with Jake Loewenthal’s George Gibbs (as his father and stepfather, respectively) that gave them a chance to demonstrate the act of juggling fatherly responsibility with fatherly tenderness.
In an early scene with his future romantic interest, George de Loewenthal was delightful, demonstrating how saying the word “yeah” with the exact same intonation over and over again can express a wide variety of emotionally disparate states. Chinna Palmer as Emily Webb embodied a hopeful, flippant, youthful intellect that was so full of possibilities. Felicia Curry and Natascia Diaz brought their usual commitment and excellence to play as the matriarchs of the Webb and Gibbs families. And with the ever-reliable Holly Twyford as narrator, organizer and pastoral guide, we come to rely on her understanding, experience and interpretation of what we see and feel as we watch the events of a city’s life unfold. in front of us.
Sound design (John Gromada), so important in a show with very little visual information on which to establish a place, was assertive in its evocation of time and distance: the distant sound of the train whistle, the whistle of the nearest factory, milk bottles clinking right in front of you.
This piece, and its production in particular, is an invitation and an argument for us to courageously come to terms with the fact that we all have the right to be and to belong in this city. And that this country and this world is a trust that we share, whether we like it or not, and for which we are jointly responsible, in all its diversity: in all our humanity and its sacredness.
Duration: approximately 2h30 including 1 intermission of 15 minutes and 1 intermission of 10 minutes.
Our city is played through June 11, 2022 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($35 to $120), buy on line or call 202.547.1122.
The program for Our city is online here.
COVID safety: Guests must provide proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend any performance or public event at Shakespeare Theater Company. Masks are mandatory for all guests inside, except when eating or drinking in designated areas. Shakespeare Theater Company’s full COVID health and safety guidelines are here.
Our city by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Alan Paul
Director: Holly Twyford
Dr. Gibbs: Eric Hissom
Joe Crowell: Hudson Koonce
Howie Newsome: Christopher Michael Richardson
Mrs. Gibbs: Natascia Diaz
Mrs. Webb: Felicia Curry
George GibbsJake Loewenthal
Rebecca Gibbs Maisie Ann Posner
Sam CraigJosh Decker
Wally WebbTommy Nelson
Emily WebbChinna Palmer
Professor Willard: Kimberly Schraf
Mr. Webb: Craig Wallace
Simon StimsonLawrence Redmond
Mrs. Soames: Sarah C. Marshall
Agent Warren: Elliot Dash
If Crowell: Hudson Koonce
Joe StoddardSuzanne Richard
Ensemble: Quinn M. Johnson
Ensemble: Summer Wei
Scenographer: Wilson Chin
Costume Designer: Sarafina Bush
Lighting designer: Philip Rosenberg
Sound Designer: John Gromada
Composer: Michael John La Chiusa
Music Director: Jay Crowder
Mime and movement directors: Mark Jaster, Emma Crane Jaster
Resident playwright: Dr. Drew Lichtenberg
Assistant directors: Jacob Ettkin, Max J. Kelly
Voice and text coach: Lisa Beley
Intimacy and Struggle Consultant: Lorraine Ressegger-Slone
Production Manager: Joseph Smelser
Director: Anthony O. Bullock
Assistant directors: Alison R. Simone, Jossie van Dongen
Resident Casting Director: Danica Rodriguez
All-local actors to perform ‘Our Town’ at the Shakespeare Theater Company (new stories)