Thornton Wilder’s Time Travelers Turn into Glorious Ghosts
by Barry David Horwitz
When I moved to Berkeley in 1960 for school, I thought I’d landed in Thornton Wilder’s ideal small town. We left our doors unlocked, we talked to our neighbors, and even helped each other out. It was “Our Town” re-discovered.
Well, that was 1960, and corporate U.S. won and we are all transformed, now. The University is no longer free—as it used to be. You know what happened to house prices. And the unequal health system could not cope.
I forgot that Thornton Wilder’s 1938 gem “Our Town” starts by introducing the actors onstage by their real names. With that stroke, Wilder places the play in every town where it is staged. The inspired multi-cultural casting makes the point stick that it’s happening today—this time at Contra Costa Civic Theatre in El Cerrito.
In Director Marilyn Langbehn’s production of Wilder’s 30s Depression masterpiece, Act Three makes the show sing. When Grace Dolezal-Ng steps up to give her monologue as the ghost of Emily Webb, she takes lyrical flight and all the pieces fit together.
With chairs representing graves and lovely stars twinkling, Emily’s ghost returns to her family and home. And something magical happens. In a towering and touching monologue, Emily shows us that the living are “troubled,” and we all live in “a cloud of ignorance.”
In the graveyard scene, America makes sense. “Our Town” transcends the everyday gossip of the first two acts, and puts Grover’s Corners right up there in the sky.
When Emily sees how she actually interacted with her mother, she realizes how little we see, everyday. She counsels us to look at the world closely: “Earth, you are too wonderful for for anyone to ever really realize you.”
Fred Pitts as the Stage Manager brings a casual, relaxed aura to daily life. Justin P. Lopez makes an innocent, wide-eyed George Gibbs. Tim Holt Jones plays a comforting, fatherly Dr. Gibbs.
Suzanne Hobbs Reed creates a delightful, thoughtful Mrs. Gibbs. Doy Charnsupharindr makes an incomparable, lively, and letter-perfect Editor Webb. Kelly Rhinehart rings true as the straight arrow, unimpeachable Mrs. Webb. Marjan Safa finds the charming crankiness of Mrs. Soames.
Wilder is our Shakespeare—connecting the small town ideal to the whole human race. The theatrical miracle rises in the graveyard, as ghosts connects us to the beyond.
Wilder’s stage directions are brutally stark, just a few tables, chairs, and ladders—no props, no cups or glasses or kitchens or parlors—just people pretending to be living ordinary lives in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. They grow and develop over twelve years—from 1901 to 1913—teenagers grow up and marry, village life goes on, and the sun sets every single day.
The slower first two acts will no doubt speed up to match the dynamism of the third. This is a poetic drama about acting and non-acting and it builds slowly to its shocking climax. “Our Town” is like American life—we have to risk something ourselves to care for our neighbors. Well-worth seeing eight lives in three acts, and listening to Wilder’s soaring words.
“Our Town” by Thornton Wilder (1938), directed by Marilyn Langbehn, scenic design by Devon La Belle, by Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito, California. Info: ccct.org – to Sunday, October 31, 2021.
Cast: Doy Charnsupharindr, Grace Dolezal-Ng, Susanne Hobbs Reed, Tim Holt Jones, Justin P. Lopez, Fred Pitts, Kelly Rinehart, and Marjan Safa.
Banner photo: Justin P. Lopez , Doy Charnsupharindr, Fred Pitts, and Grace Dolezal-Ng. Photos by Ben Krantz.