Something happens to me every time I read or see a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my reaction was fairly common. Even in good versions the first two acts pass fairly intermittently; the show is artificial and abstract, wanting in conflict and populated by stock characters. I consider it my favorite work of theater, but there’s always a moment when I ponder what exactly led me to designate it as such.
And then the haunting third act, and I remember. Many of its lines have become touchstones, most famously Wilder’s beautiful estimation of the only people who “realize life while they live it,” (“The saints and poets, maybe— they do some.”) but I’ve always loved the mention of Grover’s Corner’s Civil War veterans. They’re described as boys who “had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than fifty miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends… and they went and died about it.”
It’s the “about” that gives the line such power, and it’s the reason it’s hard to imagine a more inspired idea than staging Our Town in Green-Wood Cemetery, which is populated by the very veterans who went and died about it. And to that masterstroke it adds further resonance: the show is timed with dusk, and as Wilder’s themes get darker, so does the sky.
Werner Herzog coined the phrase “the voodoo of location,” referring to the feeling derived from setting. And just as his Aguirre, the Wrath of God wouldn’t have felt so immediate had he not actually trekked his production into the rainforest to film it, so is Green-Wood’s Our Town imbued to its very core with its surroundings.
That’s almost enough to salvage a production that, frankly, isn’t very good. The “distinctly Brooklyn” qualities referred to on Green-Wood’s website play more like a hater’s exaggeration of hipster stereotypes. There are bizarre costume choices—wallet chains and way-fake beards—that must be means to some kind of end, but to which I can’t imagine. Many of the actors come from comedic backgrounds, but rather than using this as a chance to stretch their abilities the performances largely suggest they can only see material through a comic lens.
The text and the setting command respect and solemnity, which the production denies, but not in interesting or illuminating ways. Actors balance on tombstones in a show of tomfoolery, another spits on a grave. Elements that seem designed for edginess instead come off as sacrilege. Those are real graves, marking real people. You don’t have to be superstitious to feel queasy.
And yet, as always happens with Our Town, the problems of the first two acts are largely forgotten in the third, as the Stage Manager takes us to the Grover’s Corner cemetery, full of “strong-minded people that come a long way to be independent” and where “an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down.” It’s one of the most important passages in American theater, and it’s almost always affecting, thanks to the strength and simplicity of Wilder’s gentle insights.
Listen to what he writes: “You know as well as I do that the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth… and the ambitions they had… and the pleasures they had… and the things they suffered… and the people they love. They get weaned away from earth—that’s the way I put it—weaned away.”
It’s one thing to hear this speech in a theater that, as in the typical staging, features no props or background. It’s another thing—a disquieting, sobering, very moving thing— to hear it surrounded by the remains of people who were gone before even the first Our Town production in 1938. These are people who are only known now by the names on their tombs, but who once had ambitions and pleasures. Who suffered, and who went and died about it.