Until recently, I thought of Thornton Wilder as a famous, but avuncular American playwright and novelist and of his Pulitzer Prize winning play “Our Town” as an iconic, but comfy play. I knew it is performed almost daily in high schools and community theaters, and I’d read it as a teen. I’d have seen it if little else was playing, but, while nourishing, it seemed as surprising – as innovative to me – as mac and cheese. My thinking changed dramatically after I saw the 75th anniversary production of “Our Town” playing at Ford’s Theatre through Feb. 24.
Why did I want to see Ford’s production of “Our Town?” Because in the wake of the 75th anniversary of the opening of “Our Town” on Broadway, Wilder is the talk of the town. A production of Wilder’s play “The Skin of Our Teeth” will be presented Feb. 14-16 at the Harold and Sylvia Theatre at American University and a new bio of Wilder “Thornton Wilder: A Life” by Penelope Niven is just out. I wanted to take a fresh look at Wilder’s life and his renowned play.
Wilder, who lived from 1897 to 1975, was of a generation that was often closeted about its sexuality. Known for his intellect, Wilder spent most of his life with his work and his friends (which ran the gamut from Gertrude Stein to boxing champion Gene Tunney) rather than in relationships. “… Art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time,” Wilder wrote.
Still, even with the limitations of biographical gaydar, it seems as if Wilder likely was queer. Growing up, his father was concerned about Wilder’s “peculiar gait and certain effeminate ways.” In her splendid biography, Niven says, “a case can be made” that Wilder was bisexual.
The story of “Our Town” is known from Peoria to San Francisco to Tokyo. Set in the fictional New Hampshire small town of Grover’s Corner’s from 1901 to 1914, Wilder’s play not only illuminates daily life (from falling in love to marrying to dying) in a particular time in America, but opens our eyes to the interconnectivity of human beings and to the need to embrace life in the face of our mortality. Using deceptively simple language, “Our Town,” when staged well, stops us in our tracks. As we hear the Stage Manager’s narration and watch George and Emily love, marry and deal with death in the early 20th century, in the 21st century, we come face-to-face with the transience and timelessness of life.
Ford’s production of “Our Town,” featuring a racially diverse cast, is poignant and engaging. The company’s lively staging, which used the minimalist staging Wilder had wanted for the play, removed the mothballs that too often encase “Our Town.” By play’s end, I found myself asking with Emily, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”
“I’m always interested in reexamining classics,” Stephen Rayne, the director of Ford’s production of “Our Town,” said in a telephone interview. “When Wilder wrote the play, he saw himself as being in the forefront of the modernist tradition. He had become dissatisfied with theater on Broadway at the time.”
Wilder felt that theater wasn’t making any demand on the public, Rayne said. “With ‘Our Town,’ Wilder was hoping to get back to the purity of form that the Greek dramas had,” he added. “He wanted to make audiences use their imagination. Wilder wrote about falling in love, marrying and death –human moments for everybody, so that we would become more present while we’re alive.”
Now that same-sex marriage is becoming a reality, it would be great to see a production of “Our Town” featuring LGBT characters. Until then, check out Wilder’s play, which transcends differences in class, culture, sexual orientation and race. It’ll make you feel more alive.