I’m convinced that if Thornton Wilder ever met me, in an alternate universe, he would think I am a complete fool. I am the person no one should ever want attending their funeral. I cry, I blow my nose loudly, and I make others cry. To be frank, I’m a complete mess.
Wilder’s play, Our Town, is based on the notion that human beings live their lives in fast-forward, focusing on the smallest, most menial aspects of everyday life. They get entangled in their emotions and they get consumed with frivolous things like the weather, or what they will make for dinner. Then they blink, and life is over – at least, that’s what Wilder thought of it all.
Shaw Festival’s production of Our Town, directed by Molly Smith, takes this idea and runs with it, and this is apparent right from the get-go.
The Stage Manager (Benedict Campbell) opens the show gameshow host-style, introducing the audience to the characters they will see throughout the play, while also revealing nonchalantly which of the characters are already dead.
Campbell plays this role with such precision, narrating in an enticing way, yet in a tone that says "none of this really matters." Wilder would be proud.
And thus begins, what I call, my favorite plotless play.
We watch the Gibbs and Webb families live their day-to-day, small-town lives in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, going through all the boring motions. We watch them get flustered over getting their children to school on time and stringing the beans for canning. We watch their children grow up, fall in love and get married afterwards.
The entire Shaw cast owns their roles, reeling the audience into their normal, humble lives. We watch them speed through nothingness: leaving the house, coming home, waking up, sleeping, growing up and dying.
For them, there’s always something to do, but the Stage Manager constantly reminds us that it’s all fleeting.
The set design by Ken MacDonald consists of the bare minimum. White ladders drop from above to separate the Gibbs and Webb residences and also to indicate where their backyards begin. White lifeguard chairs are used as the windows where George Gibbs (Charlie Gallant) and Emily Webb (Kate Besworth) have their secret late-night conversations. White tables are where the two families eat their pantomimed breakfasts each morning.
We don’t see much visually – just the townspeople going about their busy lives. That is the beauty of this play.
There is nothing exceptional about the plot, the design or the characters. They are ordinary people living ordinary lives, and in the final scene, we see that most of us do live our lives in that very same way – living, but not truly seeing everything, even though we may want to. Every goal in life is a stepping stone to the next goal. Nothing is permanent. And the Shaw Company demonstrates this morbid reality masterfully.
Our Town is playing at the Royal George Theatre until Oct. 15. For more information, visit http://www.shawfest.com/.