Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town is a kind of time capsule, a snapshot of everyday life in a New Hampshire town during the first years of the 20th century.
The fourth-wall breaking narrator says as much, promising to bury the play’s text in a box alongside the US constitution, a bible and a copy of the local newspaper, so that thousands of years from now future civilisations will know what it was truly like to live an average life in this idyllic all-American town. Wilder was ahead of his time here, basically striving for a turn-of-the-century version of reality television.
The folksy community are fossilised on stage, and painfully ordinary in their everyday business. Milk is delivered by horse, chit chat is chit chatted, children get ready for school, breakfasts are cooked, some of the wives practice choir in the evening. There’s a marriage, but hardly any romance, and death, but hardly any tragedy, and a lot of staring up at the moon and listening to the whistle of a distant train. Occasionally the narrator, played mischievously by Laura Roberts, interrupts to address the audience or to bring on guest speakers to lecture on the town’s history and demography. The on-stage cast of 19 characters work with hardly any staging or props, and with a strict aversion to anything too dramatic taking place.
It’s mesmerisingly tedious, directionless; boring, even, prompting your untaxed mind to clutch at themes that probably aren’t there. Is this a play about the spectre of industrial progress, the deterioration of friendly community?
Wilder wanted it this way, instructing that his play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness”, but it’s only once your brain is suitably lulled that the final act can deliver its poignant about-face, in which a mortal perspective shift brings the preciousness of all things mundane into dramatic relief.