I’m a freak. I got Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Two Historic Productions on Two DVD. The two productions they are referring to are the 1977 production starring Hal Holbrook and the 1989 production starring Spalding Gray. I’d seen each of them before at the time they were first released. And they didn’t affect me one way or the other. I had never thought much of Our Town. Yesterday, I decided to, in one setting, watch the two productions and compare them.
I was destroyed. I cried buckets during the 1977 production, so I thought I would be well steeled for the 1989 production. Nope. I cried so much in the third act of this production, I had to change my pants; the tears were pouring off my face onto my lap.
Both productions are really good. The acting is amazing. I prefer the way the 1989 production was staged, which was traditional, as a play. The 1977 production was staged as a TV drama and uses some special effects that look dated, but wouldn’t have worked for me at time. But the biggest difference is in the performances of Holbrook and Gray as the stage manager. Frankly, Gray is a little hard to take. It isn’t that he doesn’t do a good job. However, as a performance artist, he hauls around a lot of baggage. So when, as the stage manager, he says, “Nice town, y’know what I mean?” I couldn’t help but think that he meant something entirely different from Hal Holbrook, when he said it. Gray didn’t say the line sarcastically, but I heard it that way. As a result, I spent the first act trying to figure out what his take was on the character. It was only in the second act that I realized he had no modern “take” on the part; he was doing it straight.
Another important difference in the productions is the part of Emily. In the 1977 production, Glynnis O’Connor plays the part; in 1989, it is Penelope Ann Miller. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that Emily is dead throughout the third act. (Everyone had to read this play in high school, right?) And the part can be played tight (O’Connor) or broad (Miller). I prefer broad. If I’m going to be sobbing throughout the third act, I would prefer some company. Miller cried almost as much as I did. Check her out:
When I was young, I never really got Our Town. Despite the fact that this play is done all the time by school children, it really isn’t one meant for children to see. The play is very clever. It is about the inexorable march of time. It is about the time from 1901 to 1913, but told from the perspective of 1938. Children do not see the world from that perspective—they cannot. It is only old people, like me, who see the world largely in the past tense. Our Town presents us with two acts about small town life, just for the purpose of showing us a third act that tells us we can only ever appreciate the past by understanding that we didn’t appreciate it in the present. Emily asks the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” It is not an ironic question, although I wonder whether it should be; after all, the dead seem to be committing the same error.
You could do worse than spend three and a half hours watching these productions back to back. In fact, you probably will. And that seems to have been Wilder’s point. Although I think he would have suggested that whatever you do, you should do it with someone you love.
 I don’t know if it is still true, but until about 30 years ago, Our Town had been performed somewhere in the United States every day since its premiere in 1938. This is largely because the play doesn’t need much in terms of sets or costumes. Of course, the same can be said for Six Characters in Search of an Author, a more brilliant but less affecting play.
 Fifteen years after Our Town, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s work seems so different from Wilder’s, but the third act of Our Town certainly anticipates a lot of what Beckett went on to do. This is not so much true of Godot but of Endgame and Play and, perhaps most of all, Happy Days.