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Sunday, June 23, 2024
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APT’s “Our Town” finds meaning in the mundane

Performed in an outdoor theater, 'Our Town' strips life down to its barest elements for a show that’s as quaint as it is impactful.

American Players Theatre is located in Spring Green, a village an hour away from Madison. On the ride there, there’s only verdant green fields on both sides of the road. 

You’ll know when you arrive that there’s nothing quite like it in Wisconsin. 

Their season is mainly limited to the summer, and it’s been called “the finest classical theater festival” in the United States. There are two theaters, one indoors and one outdoors. The outdoor theater is the Hill Theater and is situated on a hill in the middle of the woods. One needs to hike for a bit to get there. 

The play ‘Our Town,’ written by Wisconsin native Thornton Wilder is playing at the theater for the first time in 30 years and runs until Sept. 22. The play, first produced in 1938, follows the lives of the residents of the early 1900s, sleepy fictional town of Grover’s Corners, but mainly the lives of young couple Emily Webb and George Gibbs. The defining characteristic of the play is the stage manager, who directly addresses the audience and breaks the fourth wall. She pops in after most scenes to narrate the backstory and is an omniscient presence.

But just when you expect upheaval — when you expect a character will set out on a “hero’s journey” of self-actualization and adventure — it’s cut short. They all continue living very ordinary lives. 

There are moments that tease a status quo change, such as when Ms. Gibbs suggests a Paris vacation. Emily, who is academically bright, delivers a speech in school and says that she never wants to stop doing speeches. These scenes lead the audience to believe something more is in store — some feminist angle where she tries to fulfill this dream and not resign to being a housewife. 

But these inchoate utterances and longings never materialize into more. Ms. Gibbs never leaves Grover’s Corners, and Emily gets married right after school. Audiences usually anticipate a clear inciting incident that goes something like, “And then she went gallivanting in Paris and discovered herself anew after leaving that small sleepy town.” 

That never happens here. Nothing is obviously exciting or revolutionary. The moments of revelation and action are small and seemingly inconsequential, sprinkled throughout the three acts.

The cast and performances are excellent. Younger actors in plays tend to over-act and overdo as they haven’t fully honed their skills for subtlety. But in this production of “Our Town,” even the youngest actor, who plays the character of George’s younger sister Rebecca Gibbs, is endearing and charming in her limited role and lines.

There are few props on the stage, and the ones that exist are makeshift. It’s life stripped down to its barest elements — no paraphernalia, and intentionally so. The production wants its audience to pay attention to the everyday and the mundane, not the lavish and extravagant. Emily and George talk to each other through their windows, but there is no set. They’re merely standing on two tall ladders a few feet apart. We are supposed to fill in the blanks of the landscape of the town through our own imagination. In the open air, real birds drifting from the nearby woods fly through in the middle of a scene unrehearsed as unplanned actors.

When Emily dies, she’s a spirit in the graveyard and is allowed to choose one day in her life to relive. She is told that she shouldn’t do this, that it’ll be painful. The stage manager tells her this is because you not only live it, but you watch yourself living it. All of us sitting there, young and old, were for two hours extricated from the busyness and tedium of living and doing errands, quietly watching other people live out their lives on the stage. 

But Emily doesn’t give in. She wants just one glimpse of her life among the living.

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Emily wants to choose a significant day. The stage manager advises her to choose an unimportant day, to choose the least important day in her life. It will be important enough. This line sums up the essence of the play and what Wilder wants us to realize: that we sleepwalk through our life, barely aware of it until we die.

“Our Town” is tonally sanguine — it tries to deliver a point, and it moralizes. Deliver it does, but without being trite. I looked around during the final act, and the audience was in tears. I could hear the sniffles in the dark that had completely taken over. It was 10:00 p.m. and stars could be seen in the sky overhead. 

None of us realized the sun had set, but only that it was dark now, and we had missed the waning of the light.

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