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Returning To 'Our Town': Why The Play Still Hits Home After 80 Years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" may be the best known, most widely produced and deceptively simple of American plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OUR TOWN")

PAUL NEWMAN: (As Stage Manager) Most everyone's asleep in Grover's Corners.

SIMON: In more ordinary times, the story - just another day in a small New England town told on an almost bare set - is probably performed every few weeks somewhere - high schools, small-town church and community theaters, urban avant-garde black box stages, and every few years, another big-name Broadway revival, like this one with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager in 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OUR TOWN")

NEWMAN: (As Stage Manager) You know, scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think that there are no living beings up there, just chalk and fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time trying to make something of itself.

SIMON: Since it debuted in 1938, "Our Town" has been performed by actors across a full range of diversity. As the playwright once said in a handwritten note, it's a play in which each life, even though it appears to be a repetition among millions, can be felt to be inestimably precious.

Howard Sherman, who's been director of the American Theatre Wing, theater manager, U.S. columnist for The Stage newspaper, has interviewed more than 100 artists who have appeared in all kinds of productions since 2000 - his book, "Another Day's Begun: Our Town In The 21st Century" (ph).

Howard Sherman joins us from New York. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD SHERMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What was the story you set out to find in all these different productions?

SHERMAN: Ultimately, "Our Town" always brings people to the same place. Thornton Wilder wasn't shy about making very clear what the message of this play was. So the story was, how did each production find its way to that common message? And the different ways people find to "Our Town" are quite remarkable at times.

SIMON: I'm struck by something Michael McKean, the actor, told you, who was in David Cromer's acclaimed production that began in Chicago. It's this little dewdrop of a town, but it's also the universe. It's also America.

SHERMAN: It absolutely is. And again, that's right out of the play. At the end of Act I, George Gibbs' sister Rebecca talks about a letter that a friend of hers got that starts with the local address. And the final parts of the address are the universe, the mind of God. It goes from the very specific to the cosmic. It's about people everywhere.

SIMON: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I had the impression that each and every company that you profile, when they try the play, that company becomes kind of their own small town.

SHERMAN: That's true of most theatrical productions, that people create their own family, create their own world. But there is some special quality to "Our Town" because it wants you to consider what is happening to you in the moment as often as you can that companies bond within "Our Town." One of the actors said that companies take on the character of the play they're taking on. And in an unhappy play, they may be an unhappy cast. But "Our Town" brings everybody a certain quality of reflection and, indeed, peace.

SIMON: Montgomery County Emergency Services in Pennsylvania took on this play. It was considered, I guess, to be good therapy. It was rough stuff for them, wasn't it?

SHERMAN: It was rough stuff for them. And I'm not sure they all thought about it as therapy. It was done initially as team building. But it brought out in them a way of reflecting on their daily lives and indeed on the lives of the people for whom they were caring. It was both cathartic for them personally and informative for them in how they took care of these psychiatric patients. It's the power of this play and the power of gathering after work with your colleagues, with whom you really only talk about your daily grind, and to work on something totally unrelated, and not just going out for drinks after work to gripe about your bosses but to think about the universe and to think about...

SIMON: Yeah.

SHERMAN: ...Mortality.

SIMON: I'm struck by how many - to paint in very broad brush strokes here - kind of urban hipster theater types told you, oh, gosh, I - it's high school stuff. This company should never do "Our Town." And then, as I think Heidi Stillman at Lookingglass told you, oh, then we read it.

SHERMAN: Yeah, I think it's a play that people think they know. People want to paint it as this old-fashioned love letter to the past. And that's not what it is at all.

SIMON: Not at all. Tell us about the production at Sing Sing.

SHERMAN: The experiences that the men in that production brought to this play are just unknowable for those of us who have not had to live in those circumstances. Their appreciation of time, their appreciation of being out of the world in the sense that they are largely cut off from society and how that bears on this story is incredibly moving. And having seen the production, I can say it was one of the most extraordinary experiences I've ever had in my life...

SIMON: Yeah.

SHERMAN: ...Watching a piece of theater. They had no stage lighting. They had guards watching what was going on. They had bars on the windows. That is not how we normally experience any play, let alone a play that is about expanding beyond our own little portion of the world. And there's a line in the play which is, people are all just shut up in little boxes, aren't they? I'm paraphrasing.

SIMON: Yeah.

SHERMAN: But when that is spoken by a cast of men who have to finish the show so they can go back to their cells, it means something very different. And at a time when so many people around the world are communicating on Zoom, we are shut up in little boxes on our screens as well. So "Our Town" in its simplicity allows it to represent so much.

SIMON: Howard Sherman - his book, "Another Day's Begun: Our Town In The 21st Century" - thanks so much for being with us.

SHERMAN: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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