Last night doing the dishes I realized I had messed up a few moments in Our Town, the ones with the women in their kitchens. As you know, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb spend a lot of time working there, without actual kitchens. There's not a stove, sink, shelf, pot, knife or coffee mug on the premises. All the women's work is done in mime (with the exception, in our production, of stringing the beans):
We thought we got the mime part down pretty well. In rehearsals we started with mock-ups of actual kitchens, and started subtracting the set and props when the women had got their routines figured out. We simplified some things too when we realized that people in the audience were not meant to focus their attention on things like Mrs. Gibbs' exact recipe for French toast.
All this business has a payoff at the top of the second act, when the stage manager pays the two mothers a famous tribute:
"I don't have to point out to the women in the audience that both these ladies they see before them, both these ladies cooked three meals a day, one of them for twenty years, and the other for forty—and no summer vacation. They raised two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house, and never had a nervous breakdown."
My friend and colleague Leah Chandler Mills says these lines are potentially patronizing, but thinking of my own mother I never found them so. In performance, the speech always got appreciative chuckles, just as it's meant to.
Washing up the dishes late last night after dinner with friends, I was thinking that if anyone looked in my kitchen window they would see a scene from Our Town—someone working in the kitchen—yes, the genders had changed and there were actual dishes, but the actions were the same. And I realized I had got them slightly wrong in the show. That's because, like Mrs Webb and Mrs Gibbs, I have done several thousand dishes in my time. I stack the dishes to the right of the sink, rinse them in the running faucet, stash them in the dishwasher. Like most dish doers in their own homes, I have my routine down. Nothing is wasted when I am doing my dishes, if I am just doing the dishes, as I was doing them last night, the difference being I was also watching myself doing them, just as we watch Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs doing their's.
I had made the mistake of telling these ladies that the pressure was on in their kitchens—they had to get their breakfasts made and their kids fed before the school bell rang. So there was a lot of anxiety and tension in both households, and in creating that I had missed the point. The point is that making breakfast and washing dishes is something many of us do but something we rarely look at someone doing. And if we were to look at that work, we would see something ordinary and remarkable—small dance routines, little marvels of efficiency, economy and fluidity ( I admit I was thinking this after a half bottle of wine). It's the sort of thing that can only come with a thousand repetitions. I should have encouraged those women just to do their work and nothing more. That would have been more than enough.