I don’t know what tripped the switch, but for the last couple of days my thoughts have been a bit fixed on Thornton Wilder’s play ‘Our Town’.  Below is an introduction lifted from a set of videos of two productions of the play.

(Can I assume that you’ve seen ‘Our Town’ in one form or another?  If not, then from the standpoint of this post, you’re at sea.  If we are to believe “Since its original production in 1938, Our Town has been produced on stage somewhere every single day”, you’ve had plenty of opportunity.  You need to face up to your sloth and general delinquency…)

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“Thornton Wilder was unhappy with the 1940 film and 1957 musical versions of Our Town. Before his death, in 1975, he worked with producer Saul Jaffe and director George Schaefer in an attempt to leave behind a definitive version of his masterpiece. The result of that collaboration was broadcast on NBC in 1977, featuring a stellar cast that included Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, Sada Thompson, John Houseman, Glynnis O Connor and Robby Benson, and was such a success that the trustees of Wilder’s estate decided to never permit another television version of the play. The author had his definitive version.

Since its original production in 1938, Our Town has been produced on stage somewhere every single day, often by school or community theaters drawn to its simple set design, large cast and American themes.  Gregory Mosher, who directed the Lincoln Center Theater’s stage production, felt that as a result the play had been turned into a holiday greeting card, reduced by a consensus that it was a superficial, nostalgic, flag-waving poem to a lost America.

His production reflects Wilder’s very particular version of what life in this century had been and might become. The production, featuring Spalding Gray, Frances Conroy, Roberta Maxwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Eric Stoltz, ran on Broadway for 136 performances, and the trustees were so impressed by the Tony Award-winning production that in 1989 they granted permission for its presentation on PBS’s Great Performances series.  The 1988 production is the one recommended by the Thornton Wilder Society.

Our Town is considered one of the greatest American plays. Epic in scope yet profoundly intimate in its depiction of small town life early in the twentieth century, Wilder’s aim was to leave a time capsule for future generations curious about life in early 20th century New England. Upon his death he could not have known that his desire for a definitive television production of his play would be satisfied not once but twice. It’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have been pleased.”

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Both the 1977 and the 1988 productions talked about here can be seen on Youtube, though something of a grave viewing solution.  The 1977 one was directed and shot for television, whereas the 1988 one is fundamentally a taped stage performance, and consequently suffers some from the fact that the actors’ ‘effects’, which would have been intended for twelfth row center, are rarely modified for these kinds of taped records.

The casting of the ’77 production is glorious, though the whole production might need to shield itself from the ‘holiday greeting card’ lambaste (which would only be flung by a toad) mentioned before.  There are other ‘recent’ productions on video, one with Paul Newman, which is good.  And there was a recent production in New York done ‘in the round’ with cast scurrying amongst the audience, which in addition attempted to ‘open up’ the play with modern vernacular.  Disaster.

When I was in the tenth grade, I was in our high school’s production of ‘Our Town’.  Though the rest of the cast was mined from the speech and drama classes which were restricted to eleventh and twelfth graders, the director and teacher of those courses (a dear lady who seemed to have been plucked from central casting fulfilling a request for ‘schoolmarm’) approached me with the ‘Professor Willard’ role, such apparently was my nascent star potential…

A treasured experience, I refuse to entertain the notion of the viewing of that production today being massively wince-worthy.  However, faux-New England accents delivered by Georgia high school students?  Yikes.