Norman Rockwell, "Russian Schoolroom," 1967
We all know Grover's Corner's, New Hampshire--or at least we think we do. It's the best known fictional small town in America. We know what it looks like and what it feels like. It's a cozy,modest place, quiet, ordinary, population at the moment of 2,642 with the recent of arrival of twins over in Polish town. The town is very specifically laid out for us: five churches, a railroad station, a main street, a town hall, a bank, post office, a grocery store and a drug store most people stop in every day. Very nice town if you ask me. And we know what the town feels like too: there's a general ongoing easiness about the place that comes with people doing the same things every day and in no great hurry. There's an abundance of good will, good feeling and good humor. Grover's Corners, in fact, is as detailed and as benign as a Norman Rockwell illustration--he seemed to have spent his whole productive life painting our town.
But as familiar and specific as Grover's Corners is, Our Town has something quite strange about it. There is actually very little there. Almost nothing. Mrs Gibbs and Mrs. Webbs come down to fix breakfast of every morning of every performance of the play, and they are lighting their stoves and setting their tables and making coffee and bacon without a stove, plate, knife, fork or coffee pot on the premises. The families who sit down to dinner together every evening lead double lives. They look simultaneously entirely recogonizable, down to every last detail, and also like ghosts, impermanent and temporary. They represent themselves and also all the families who have ever taken meals together, millions of them, and without leaving a trace behind. Grover's Corners, likewise, is a very particular little town, just over the border from Massachusetts. But it is also nowhere, barely a speck in the galaxy, a light in a vast dark universe that's going to go out one day.
To my mind it is this juxtaposition of the small the large, the known and the unknown, the here and now and the eternity of time past and future, all of them present simultaneously, that makes OUR TOWN such an extraodinary theatrical experience. Very quietly, and without any hint of aggression, Thornton Wilder has managed to create a world that is both comforting and supernatural. It seems to me the play, like nearly all great plays, is an expansive one. We find ourselves in a place that is our home that we've never seen quite this way before. You are here.