Theatre Gigante re-imagines Wilder’s “Our Town”
"Our Our Town" asks the same questions as the Pulitzer-winning classic, from a modern perspective.
Thornton Wilder once described his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Our Town as, “it appears to be a meditation about the difficulty of, as the play says, ‘realizing life while you live it.’” So too with Theatre Gigante’s Our Our Town, a fresh new production inspired by the classic.
Gigante’s original script transports Wilder’s themes, originally set in a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the century, to modern times – Facebook and texting included. Two characters – the Stage Manager and the Professor – were retained. The other players mixed and morphed to embody the everyman: a husband and wife on the verge of breaking up over vegetarianism, a lesbian couple unable to understand one another’s worldview, people sitting down to dinner, a doctor regretful of not following his athletic ambitions, a man no longer able to hear his own voice.
Produced in an intimate black box theater, the entire space was used – even a seat in the audience, where a planted actor advised the others about how to live in the moment. Following Wilder’s lead, Gigante used this and other devices of metatheater seamlessly, including a narrator (the Stage Manager) who addressed the audience directly, and characters who redirected a rehearsal of the play.
Mirroring Wilder’s progression, Our Our Town examined life in its entirety – from birth to death. Modern anxiety was manifest on stage through the drama’s deep, honest vignettes in which people struggled to make decisions, pacify regret, understand the universe, and live with one another and themselves. We saw the mechanics of our own minds at work here.
It’s philosophical, existential, sometimes scary stuff. The play asks questions such as, “Does childhood really exist?” and, “What happens when you die?” and, “Is it even possible to live ones’ life fully aware every minute?” Maybe for “saints and poets,” was the response – a direct quote from the original. As if reading a self-help book, I found myself enveloped by the psychological yearning, searching for answers just as much as the characters.
But although serious, this play is also seriously funny. Just as the heaviness weighed down, Gigante found catharsis in humor. A nervous Professor (Tom Simpson) succeeded more in providing comic relief than philosophical clarity. Unable to so much as decide whether to sit or stand during his long-winded lecture, the absent-minded Professor used round-about logic to disprove Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and explain our ever-growing dissatisfaction in the face of progress.
At one point, an excerpt from Act 3 of Our Town is read aloud. This, the cemetery scene, was what inspired Gigante’s creation in the first place. Artistic directors Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson had wanted to commemorate friend, collaborator and former chair of the dance department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Ed Burgess, who died suddenly and unexpectedly exactly one year before the show’s opening night. The play is a fitting dedication.
Throughout the performance, the balance between deep introspection and humor, the empathy evoked by the characters, the actors’ delivery and the nuanced, coherent vignettes were captivating. So captivating, in fact, that I was put in that ephemeral state both Wilder and Gigante’s characters sought: the present, in which it is possible to live life fully aware, in which it is possible to realize life while you live it.