For the Love of Our Town
Our Town at Portland Center Stage opens upon stark simplicity. The only scenery is rows of chairs gathered as in a one-room schoolhouse or town meeting or church.
“What is this all about?” I wonder.
The Stage Manager rearranges chairs, designating different parts of this turn-of-the-century town, and it is like watching the flow of a dream, the collective dream of American history. He introduces us to the Gibbs and their neighbors, the Webbs. The air rings with good-mornings. All have their place: the milkman, the newspaper publisher, the doctor, the busybody, the constable, even the town drunk.
I think of the story of Alice, free to ride her tricycle through downtown Everett, Washington in 1907. On her seventh birthday, missing her front teeth, she stopped in at the studio of the photographer and asked him to take her picture. Her mother hated the gap-toothed photo. Then later, she loved it.
People watched out for the little girl on the trike, and for each other. That sense of being known and protected by an entire community – that’s something we’ve lost. And yet we have new communities, virtual gathering places and Google hangouts, social networks—all sorts of constructions meant to give us a sense that others know who we are and care about our daily activities.
Because what we do every day isn’t all that important.
As the Stage Manager explains, nothing remarkable has ever come out of this town.
You and I have to admit that despite all our clamoring to be remarkable, even with our gadgets and fast cars, we are just as plain and ordinary as the people of Grover’s Corners.
Deep down we fear that we don’t amount to much. As Thoreau mused, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
The search for the sensational pervades our history books, too. The Stage Manager points out that there were two million people in Babylon, “but we only know the names of kings.”
So then, if we aren’t royalty, what’s the point of us?
As we watch young George Gibbs and Emily Webb grow up, this question is in the back of our minds. It’s an uncomfortable question, to be sure. We hate to ask it. Some of the production's moments seem far too slow, almost as if to draw out this discomfort. Yet the beauty of this play is in the clear, unemotional way it persists in this question.
I have to say that my favorite PCS actor, Sharonlee McLean, and her comic interruptions as Mrs. Soames save the tone when it seems too detached and somber. Yet performances are lovely: big-eyed Nikki Massoud is captivating as Emily Webb.
Daily lives and quaint conversations about the "potato moon" give way to the larger sense of time passing, the world spinning, life ending and beginning and ending again.
As I drive home, feeling a stone-heavy sense of time and the world and the question of purpose, I look up at the poplar trees, still green, lining the drive toward my neighborhood. Every Autumn they become a tracery of flaming red lace. Every Autumn I am stunned at the change, forgetting to notice the daily surrender of green to red until it’s shockingly complete.
I remember going down this road with my youngest daughter at the wheel. I would hold my breath, cringing, wanting to be anyplace but in the passenger seat. And those moments passed so quickly. And now she is in her last year of college.
“Oh, I loved teaching her to drive,” I say out loud.
Because even though I didn’t . . . I did.
And to me, that’s the gift of Our Town. Recognizing that we don’t know what we love. Moments that seem lowly and insignificant and irritating and devastating can be honored and celebrated. We have the chance to pay attention. We can know each other.
I can see every face, from my daughter’s, to my own face in the mirror collecting lines every day, to the photograph of Alice, the gap-toothed girl on her trike who became my difficult grandmother.
So what’s this all about?
Not the accolades, or the sparkle, or the royalty or remark-ability of us – but that we are worth loving.
We don’t need gadgets or “likes” or titles or jet airplane rides to make this true. We are observers with the power to appreciate and notice and love all that shows up on the stage of our world, of our town.
In every now, the love, yes, the love.
Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel