“Do human beings ever realise life while they live it – every, every minute?”, asks a character speaking from the land of the dead in Thornton Wilder’s piercingly beautiful 1938 play Our Town.
Wilder’s play is a deeply compassionate portrait of our brief time on this planet and the importance of the relationships we forge and the rituals we follow. It makes its audience intensely aware of an essential truth; as the stage manager-cum-narrator puts it: “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Our Town is Wilder’s own shot at eternity. It’s one of the most iconic, and surreal, of American theatre classics: a play about everything and about nothing, a shattering portrait of the everyday rhythms and pulses of ordinary life. It is a play that is both ahead of its time and formally audacious in the way it repeatedly references its artificiality and its theatricality. In doing so it carries us right into the heart of the community it is depicting.
A detailed portrait of 12 years in the life of the fictional town of Grover’s Corners in New Hampshire, set between 1901 and 1913, it is also an act of community theatremaking. Sarah Frankcom’s new production for the Royal Exchange acknowledges this with audience members joining the actors at tables around the initially bare stage, and different local choirs featuring nightly.
As with the last major London revival, at the Almeida in 2014, this production has an American-accented actor playing the stage manager – the burly, luxuriously-bearded Youssef Kerkour. He acts as a kind of friendly and accessible tour guide. The rest of the large ensemble cast, supplemented by local community players, use their own accents in a way that stresses the universality of Wilder’s play.
Frankcom’s production is expertly stage-managed to play in-the-round. It wraps the audience in a warm embrace. Skilful lighting by Jack Knowles focuses on the actors we need to see and keep track of, as we follow Emily and George, respectively fathered by the local doctor and newspaper editor, as they meet and marry. Our Town is a play about the circle of life and it emphasises this by engaging directly with an audience also arranged in a circle.
In the third act, designer Fly Davis delivers a stunning coup de theatre, flooding the stage with snow and sunflowers just as Frankcom’s company floods the stage with feeling.