In the rainstorm, just before the wedding, someone forgets their line and whispers, desperate, fuck just loud enough to be heard. And suddenly, all the costumes and makeup and lighting melt away and there is just one nervous little human begging with his eyes for someone to help him.
And the others onstage do, and the show goes on.
I am sitting in the almost empty theater, watching my high school students do their final dress rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The students directing know that I love the play like no other, and have asked me to be one of the participating audience members, asking a question about Grover’s Corners in Act One.
They are in Act Two now, my line has come and gone, and I can’t seem to tear myself away from the story both on the stage and off. I am not Mrs. Soames—a character who weepily gushes that she just loves to see young people happy, that to be happy is the most important thing. I am not watching because I love watching my young students be happy.
I am watching because, to me, the words of this play knit the air together until everyone watching and everyone performing is held in something invisible and tensile and, of course, eternal—the tie that binds, as it were. My heart feels softer watching this play, reading this play, discussing this play. Like most good art, it gives me a better sense of how to be a kind human.
“I didn’t realize. So all of that was going on and we never noticed,” says Emily at the end, after she has died and gone back to revisit her life. The that that she sees, I believe, is love—invisible, tensile, eternal love that holds us all together.
The students who miss their lines, who speak perhaps too quickly, as if they are afraid of forgetting the words spinning off their tongues like manic silk from a spool, I see the color rise in their faces, their eyes get wide in a small panic, and I think: in their stumbling and in the way the other actors catch them, pick up the thread and move along, the play is proven. I love the mark of effort, of the off-script exchange of help perhaps even more than something flawless.
Last summer, for the 250th Anniversary of my hometown, the town put on a remarkable production of Our Town. Act One—“Daily Life”—was on the Town Green, under the flagpole and a Civil War statue and within sight of the two churches, the local grocery store, the Town Hall and the old cemeteries. Act Two—“Love and Marriage”—had everyone hustling away from a thunderstorm and into one of the churches.
Act Three was in the cemetery.
And, as Emily comes to terms with the afterlife, as George buckles at her feet under the weight of his loss, as Mr. Gibbs lays flowers on his wife’s grave, as Simon Stimson breaks my heart with his unsung melodies and regret, as the thought that the Webbs have lost both their children—it always slays me that siblings Emily and Wally exchange no words beyond the grave—I looked around at the audience in my small New Hampshire hometown.
We, the audience, are living out the same stories that our friends and neighbors and relations on the other side of the lights are telling. As we always are, but sometimes it takes a shift from normal everyday to see what is going on, how held we each are.
I hope that this holding love is eternal, outlasting death and encompassing even the imperfect. Because the line from the play that I ask is “is there much drinking in Grover’s Corners?”
As the daughter of a man who loved New Hampshire’s history and small towns and died of alcoholism, I feel like this convergence of pieces must deserve some sort of particular prize. The students, I don't think, know that my father died recently and certainly not how he did. And so I ask it, and then spend the rest of Act One worrying about Simon Stimson, the church organist and town drunk. I know the play—I know that the answer to the question other characters ask of Simon is that it ends with him hanging himself and leaving a musical phrase as his epitaph. I know he’s supposed to have seen a peck of trouble, and I know that I feel furious and defensive when the character is played for a laugh as he rolls about town.
But I take heart when Editor Webb offers to walk home with Stimson one night, and when Mrs. Gibbs—as she sits eternally in the graveyard—hushes and comforts Stimson who remains hard and bitter in death at all that he regrets doing and not doing in life. Kindness is a lifeline.
I don’t think that I believe in an afterlife, but all the same, when my dad was dying of a failing liver from years of alcoholism, I didn’t want him to die angry at himself—if he did have to go, and if there is anywhere else to go, I didn’t want him to go there angry or hard or bitter, because that just made worse what couldn’t be made worse. And if the afterlife is nothing more than releasing the molecules that made him into the world to be remade, well, no need for those to go out with self-loathing and sadness either.
One of the last times I was alone with my dad—that I know for certain he knew it was me—I held his hand and read silently Our Town while he slept. Not because of Simon Stimson or because of the beautiful father/daughter moments in the play or because of the way Emily says goodbye to the world, but because through the binding love and the eternal and seeing the unseen that and life being too wonderful to realize, I find enormous comfort, like another might find an official holy book. And because I couldn’t bring Dad to the Seacoast or to an autumn maple tree or Mt. Washington or a stonewall or lilacs, but I could bring the New Hampshire of Grover’s Corners to him.
And now, all of that is going on whenever I read or watch this beautiful play. All of these ties that bind me to these words now makes it harder to watch, puts more at stake but also reaffirms my belief that we’ve only got the short time we’ve got and the people we’ve got, and far better to make the most of all of this wonderful life than regret a second.