For a play often thought to typify Americana, as a portrait of unspoiled small-town life, Thornton Wilder’s classic retains something of the sucker punch.
Grover’s Corners, N.H., at the dawn of the American Century, has innocent young lovers, a dedicated town physician, a friendly, beat-walking constable, and all the predictable rhythms our national mythology associates with that time and place.
But Wilder constructs this scenario only to chip away at it. With gentle but precise strokes, he depicts main characters who can keep content with their lives only if they remain blind to other possiblities outside of it (whether that’s going to college or just visiting Paris).
And his famous Stage Manager (ably played by Tom Atkins), even after so many years, remains an ambiguous and even mysterious creation whose amusing asides can be ultimately read as cutting to the core of the work. After taking the role of minister for the play’s centerpiece wedding, for instance, he says about marriage, “Do I believe in it? I don’t know.” Later, he remarks, “Wherever you come across the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense.”
Both lines get laughs — maybe a bit too easily. This is a play, after all, that starts out lighthearted and charming and ends up proposing that death is merely the gateway to an afterlife in which our chief lesson is how little we appreciated being alive.
Our Town continues at the O’Reilly Theater with six more performances (including today’s matinee) through this Sunday. Tickets are $29-55.