I was down in Washington when 9/11 happened. We were in the middle of putting together the next summer season, and all I could think of was something somehow must make sense to us. Our Town kept coming into my mind.
— Joanne Woodward, PBS interview
We’re more civilized now. So they say…
— Stage Manager (Paul Newman), Our Town
Facts, numbers, distances. Everything is counted, and everything and nothing counts in Grover’s Corners, a world far away yet right outside our window. Our Town is revered for its simple structure — the three acts address “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage,” and “Life and Death” — and shorthand summation of the human journey. Concerned as it is with such commonalties as breakfasts and birthdays, choir practice, moonlit nights, courtship, weddings, and funerals, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning play feels familiar even on first viewing, such a favorite of high school and community theatre departments that few of us reach the grave without having visited Grover’s Corners, N.H. at least once.
Popular as it may be, when a revival of Our Town finds its way to primetime TV, there must be a hook. In 2003 PBS scored a doozy: Paul Newman, that crusty legend, had taken the reins as Stage Manager. Newman has been outshining his material for years now, because his projects are weak (Where the Money Is, anyone?) and because he embodies his iconic past (Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Fast Eddie, Butch Cassidy, Brick), now turned senior citizen. But the Stage Manager fits the old man perfectly. All-knowing, all-seeing, slipping in and out of other roles at will, the Stage Manager stands outside the action. He tells us what young lovers Emily (Maggie Lacey) and George (Ben Fox), their parents and neighbors don’t know (in one instance explaining when and how the Gibbs parents died even as we’re just meeting them), but he also knows far more than he’s telling. Even as he pulls us in, he remains out of reach, too much for us to understand in the context of this merely life-sized story.
Directed by James Naughton, this production premiered at the Westport Country Playhouse (where Joanne Woodward is artistic director) in the summer of 2002 and moved to Broadway’s Booth Theatre (earning Newman a Tony nomination) that fall. The version that made its way to PBS is not just the same old show put on for theatergoers, however. Rather than simply point the camera toward the stage and record his company’s performances for the rafters, Naughton filmed without an audience and reworked the blocking for television. In the accompanying production notes (an excerpt of an interview he, Newman, and Woodward did for PBS), Naughton says they “worked on all the different places we could “find” the Stage Manager.” The result has Newman speaking right to us, not to some imaginary ticket-buying audience, and as he does, next scenes drift or rise into sight behind him, overtaking his thoughts and our own.
Despite these tweaks, Wilder’s text remains as quaint and immediate as ever, amusing with its old-fashioned customs even as it shocks us with the boomerang nature of lived experience. Moments after Joe Crowell takes the stage delivering the morning newspaper, the Stage Manager delivers the boy’s eulogy:
Joe was awful bright, graduated head of his class here and got a scholarship to Boston Tech — MIT, that is. Graduated head of his class there, too, it was all written up in the Boston papers. Gonna be a great engineer, Joe was. Then the war come along, and he died in France. All that education for nothing. ‘Course, what business he had picking a quarrel with the Germans, we can’t make out to this day. But it did seem perfectly clear at the time.
One critic found the passage so familiar, Naughton says in the expanded interview available at PBS online, that he lambasted the director for inserting his own political statement. “But it’s in the play!” Naughton marvels. (“Well… I did put some English on that line,” adds Newman.) While the young men have real warfare ahead of them, their elders Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Webb are devoted scholars of past conflicts and conquerors (the Civil War and Napoleon, respectively). Joe Crowell won’t be remembered far past his generation, Wilder seems to say, but some fools decades on will be studying and admiring his generals’ battle plans as though they were what deserved study.
Marriage — that other human constant — garners even more of Wilder’s attention. But his words on that subject seem to contradict the current climate. “Almost everybody in the world gets married. Know what I mean?” the Stage Manager says, and we do and we don’t. Yes, it seems human nature to couple up (often again and again), but not everyone can marry; so the papers and the government remind us ad nauseam. Some can wed repeatedly, divorces be damned; others threaten its sanctity in their quest to join the herd. Does Wilder speak spiritually or contractually? The answer is for each of us to interpret (until legislated otherwise), though mention of nature, childrearing, and religion (“Some churches say that marriage is a sacrament. I don’t know what that means, but I can guess”) seem to tip Wilder’s last-century hand.
But the big questions (what does it all mean? can we ever know?) and the big certainties (death is the ultimate end) have not changed. Time passes in an instant, a whoosh, and you’re old (if you’ve been lucky), looking back with wonder, regret, a yearning for second chances and a preoccupation with what comes next. One’s life is an amalgamation of moments, small and smaller, or of roles you’re known for but would like, as Newman has said, another crack at, given what you know now. The facts, in the end, will be all others have to pore over, searching for meaning, and they will find just a smidgen of who you were, if any bit at all.
“In our town we like to know the facts,” the Stage Manager tells us early in Our Town. But by play’s end, with Emily’s seated in her chair in the cemetery on the hill, we learn that the facts are for the living; the dead “get weaned away” from such trivialities. The facts are the living’s desperate means of differentiating one from another, of grabbing some bit of individuality. They are the stuff of obituaries — whether destined for a special section in the movie pages or filed in “Portraits of Grief.” All that lingers for the dead is a sort of buzz and hum.