Sunday, March 8, 2009

Our Town



Frank Rich has an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the ongoing economic troubles of the country, and it's very thoughtful and well-written. But what really grabbed me was the first half, which uses a reading of Our Town (and a brief review of a recent revival of the show at a Greenwich Village theater) as the jumping-off point for larger musings about how much the country has (and hasn't) changed since Thornton Wilder's masterpiece debuted in 1938.

I'll admit that I was one of those people who'd read the play as, in Rich's words, "a permanent yet often dormant fixture in our culture, like the breakfront that’s been in the dining room so long you stopped noticing its contents." It wasn't until i saw a live production of the play in Gainesville a few years ago that I really understood its strange and haunting power. It's such a rich mixture of sentimental narrative and avant-garde staging, conversational phrasing and lyrical speechifying, broad tableau and small character detail: the whole thing becomes an unsettling dreamscape of shifting and never-fully-realized perspectives (which is, of course, the play's whole message).

I suddenly understood the tonal and structural connections between this piece and Wilder's Skin Of Our Teeth, which I'd read as a very precocious teen. Our Town's radicality came from finding the depth and surreal longing within the idealized small town: it wasn't a critique of small-town mores so much as a deeply sympathetic but clear-eyed reading of everything that's lost and gained in the passage of a single moment, that moment captured in a fracturing of time and space. In that regard, it might be the most emotionally involving embodiment of the theory of relativity ever seen on the American stage (a theory worked out, intriguingly, in the same time period of 1900-1915 within which the play is set).

Like Wilder, Rich wants to bend time and light to create parallels between our present moment and a past one, to suggest what is gained and lost. He does so with great skill, but what I really came away with from the piece was the reminder of all we've lost since Rich gave up the drama desk at the Times. I like his opinion pieces, but when he writes of theater (here, in his older Times reviews, or in the magnificent memoir Ghost Light), his work becomes so much more passionate and poetic, feels so much more engaged and personal. Like Emily Webb, he's a ghost watching his past, and he can't look at everything hard enough.

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