Queensland Theatre’s production of Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town has fresh poignancy in a time of pandemic. By Yen-Rong Wong.
The sun was setting as I drove through the inner suburbs of Brisbane for Queensland Theatre’s premiere of Our Town. The sky was a muted blue, with a smear of oranges and reds visible through the trees. I’d never seen a sunset quite like this before, but I couldn’t stop to admire it – I had to keep my eyes on the road, and I had places to be. But if I’d had time, would I have pulled over to look?
Taking time just to be in the present is at the heart of Our Town. Over the course of three acts and 14 years, Thornton Wilder’s classic play charts life in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a small town in the United States. The play begins in the early hours of the morning and closes at 11 at night, following the course of life more broadly – Dr Gibbs (Colin Smith) delivers twins before the play begins, and Act III ends with a funeral. And even though it opens in 1901 and ends in 1914, with a flashback to 1899, its central themes – the constancy and impermanence of life, and our need to continually look ahead, instead of appreciating what we have right now – remain ever relevant.
The play is self-referential and self-aware – the stage manager (Jimi Bani) knows he’s the narrator of a play, an artifice. He says he wants to place a copy of Our Town in the town’s time capsule alongside the works of Shakespeare, the Bible and the US constitution, suggesting that the goings-on of this small town are just as important as these other, more famous, works. It also reminds us that there is a significance in the things we might deem too mundane to remember.
In Lee Lewis’s production, the set, lit by Paul Jackson, is sparse – just a few chairs and lights, a ladder and some crates that force the audience to focus on the dialogue and characters. A crate takes the place of milkman Howie Newsome (Egan Sun-Bin)’s cow Bessie; young Jo and Si Crowell (both played by Roxanne McDonald) deliver invisible newspapers around the town; the stage manager checks his non-existent pocket watch to show the audience the time. Jackson’s lighting focuses the eye – especially during flashbacks – and provides dramatic emphases at key moments in the play. The graveyard scenes in the closing act are strikingly punctuated by 20 squares of light, one for each gravestone: a small, final glimmer for each life lost.
Many of the sounds of daily life – roosters crowing, hens clucking, milk bottles clinking – are made by the actors themselves, but THE SWEATS’ score still manages to balance drama and comedy. Ominous music accompanies church organist and choir director Simon Stimson (Anthony Standish)’s drunk staggering down Main Street in the evening after choir practice, and we hear the crunch of the invisible bacon that George Gibbs (Jayden Popik) eats with great theatricality for breakfast at the Webbs’ house on his wedding day. The hymn “Blessed be the ties that bind” is a musical motif in the play; Mrs Webb (Amy Lehpamer) sings this alone in Act I, before being joined by the rest of the church choir. Lehpamer’s voice rings clear in the first iteration, but is drenched with sorrow when she sings it again at a funeral in the final act.
Our Town focuses primarily on the Gibbs and Webb families, but the stage manager ties the production together. Bani is delightful, guiding the audience through the terrain and people of Grover’s Corners. The physicality of his performance, the twinkle in his eye and his broad grin provide both comfort and levity, whether he is interrupting a conversation between Mrs Gibbs (Libby Munro) and Mrs Webb, or nudging Professor Willard (Andrew Buchanan) off the stage after his dry but amusing mini-lecture about the geological and anthropological origins of Grover’s Corners.
Bani is appropriately solemn when discussing death, and also slips easily between parts: he plays both Mr Morgan, the owner of the drugstore where Emily Webb (Lucy Heathcote) and George realise their love for each other, and Joe Stoddard, the undertaker.
It’s clear by the end of Act I that Emily has a crush on George, and the audience witnesses the beginning of their romantic relationship and eventual wedding in the following act. Heathcote plays Emily’s immaturity with charm – it’s easy to forget she is just 19 on her wedding day – and the two actors depict the awkwardness and brashness of young love without running into caricature.
Heathcote shines in the play’s climax, her voice cracking with pain as she implores her mother just to look at her. Her pleas are directed at us, too, asking us if we are too busy living life to notice the people around us.
While Emily and George’s relationship is the centrepiece of Act II (titled “Love and Marriage”), we also see snippets of the contentious yet loving relationships between siblings. George gleefully throws soap at his sister, Rebecca (Ava Ryan), while they’re supposed to be getting ready for school; that same evening, they share a tender moment looking at the moon from George’s bedroom window. Relationships of all kinds – platonic, familial, romantic or otherwise, all depicted beautifully in the play – are key to rich and fulfilling lives. As Mrs Webb sings, “Blessed are the ties that bind.”
It’s often said we don’t truly appreciate what we have until it’s gone, and this idea has a real poignancy in the light of Covid-19-induced restrictions and lockdowns. The pandemic has pushed us to think more deeply about our common mortality, although it can sometimes be difficult to parse the meaning of a single life in the face of streams of numbers and statistics. It feels fitting that Our Town should be showing now, as life still straddles the line between normal and abnormal.
These days, thanks to technology and social media, our lives are filled with endless distraction – much more so than in 1938, when Our Town first premiered. Emily asks, “Do any human beings ever realise life while they live it?” For many of us, the answer is probably “no, not so much”.
Life, like theatre, is ephemeral; blink and you’ll miss it. Our Town brings this into sharp relief, imploring us to stop, slow down and spend quality time with the people we love, to gaze at a sunset we will never see again, to grasp these moments while we have them. And for two-and-a-half hours on a balmy Brisbane evening, a full house was transfixed by Queensland Theatre’s production of Our Town, an experience I will hold in my memory for a long time.
Our Town plays at the Bille Brown Theatre, South Brisbane, until February 20.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 13, 2021 as "Ephemeral blessings".
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