Considered by some to be the greatest American play ever written, Our Town is a three-act play by Thornton Wilder first published in 1938. Set in the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire between 1901-1913, this play is about themes that affect every human being - life, love and marriage, and death.
The play starts with Act 1: Daily Life, with the “Stage Manager” introducing Grover’s Corners, the people who live there, and their everyday lives. Characters such as Professor Willard and Editor Webb share with the audience details about the town’s history and demographics. Women gossiping after choir practice let the audience know that the church organist and choirmaster is an alcoholic.
The whole town knows, and while most look the other way, the doctor’s wife is concerned and talks to her husband about it. As Act 1 ends, several young people look out their windows into the moonlight, yearning to grow up and romantically connect.
Act 2: Love and Marriage jumps forward three years, and the doctor’s son George and the newspaper editor’s daughter Emily are preparing to marry. George is a star baseball player, and some are worried that his talents will be squandered if he marries.
The Stage Manager stops the play to show us what happened between George and Emily a year ago, when George decided to not go to college and to stay home working so he could eventually take over his uncle’s farm. As we move back to present time, George and Emily individually worry that they are not ready to marry, but go through with the wedding.
Act 3: Death and Eternity moves forward nine years and takes place in a cemetery overlooking the town. The Stage Manager brings the audience up to speed, letting them know which characters we lost during that time. As we meet the undertaker and a young man who is visiting for a cousin’s funeral, we find out that the cousin is Emily who died in childbirth.
The dead characters can be seen by the audience but not by the living Grover’s Corners residents, and they discuss how the living don’t have an appreciation for the little things in life like the dead do now.
Wilder has written the play to be metatheatrical, where the play comments on its own fictional status. This sharpens audiences’ awareness that what they are seeing is theatre and not real life. Devices such as “breaking the fourth wall” (speaking directly to the audience, thus breaking down the imaginary fourth wall that separates fictional worlds from reality) and plays-within-plays that act as a miniature portrayal of the theatre production being seen are often used in metatheatre. The set is minimal, and actors tend to pantomime rather than use props.
Our Town is recommended for audiences who like stories that give portraits of small-town life such as Gilmore Girls, Northern Exposure, It’s a Wonderful Life, Fried Green Tomatoes, Dawson’s Creek, Steel Magnolias, and The Last Picture Show.