I recently finished a run in the classic Thorton Wilder play, Our Town, with my community theatre. Simply put, the play is about a town in New Hamshire in the early 1900s. But it’s also about any town, any time. Act one shows a day in the life of the town, act two covers love and marriage, and act three covers the sad, but inevitable, reality of death. I played Rebecca Gibbs, a little sister in one of the two families.
As part of the process of rehearsing and preparing for the show, the cast and crew talked a lot about what the show means. And it means something different to everyone, but the most popular interpretation of the play is that it’s important to appreciate life. In Act 3, Emily, the main character, has died. While her living relatives mourn at her funeral, Emily converses with the fellow dead. She realizes that “live people don’t understand.” They live, but not fully. They don’t take the time to appreciate life and really connect with one another. Emily even then goes back to live over a day of her childhood again, but quickly returns to her grave because it is too painful. She remarks, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”
On the night of one of our final rehearsals, some of the cast and crew had a spontaneous debate in the theater’s basement about who says the most critical line in the play. Some argued that it was Mrs. Soames talking at Emily’s wedding about the importance of being happy. “I always say: happiness, that’s the great thing! The important thing is to be happy.”
Others vouched for Simon Stimpson’s closing speech. Simon is known around town as “having seen a peck of trouble.” He drinks a great deal and ends up taking his own life. In his closing speech while among the dead, Simon chastizes, “That what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance.”
Personally, I’m on Team Emily as to who has the most important lines in the play. The play closes with Emily saying goodbye to the world and all her favorite things. The monologue reads:
“Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
This was always the moment in the play that felt most emotional to me. As someone who has been to the depths of misery when ill and to the highs of euphoria when well, I can feel Emily’s pain. But I also feel her appreciation for getting to experience all these simple but wonderful things in life.
I think the meaning of the play runs deeper than just appreciate life and the people you share it with. I think it means appreciate life all the more when you can. Sometimes we’re not always in a place where we can be happy; I’m the last person to say “just think positive.” That’s not always realistic, especially under a cloud of depression or another struggle. As Simon, the town drunk, exemplified, pain is a part of life.
But when we are well, and able to be happy, that is when we must appreciate these joys in life the most. Thankfully, that is where I am now in life as part of recovery. And I think this dichotomy in my ability to feel gratitude and joy for life makes the gratitude all the more sweeter.
Because I love Emily’s goodbye monologue so much, I passed out some half sheets of paper in which I invited the cast and crew to write their own version. I flipped the phrasing from “Good-by” to “Hello,” so instead we were focusing on what we are grateful for and appreciate while alive. Here is my response and some of theirs!
“Hello, Hello world. Hello mom’s hugs after not being together for several months. Hello to the sound of a cat purring. Hello libraries and books, especially old ones. Hello to chocolate ice cream and to chocolate cake. Hello to songs that send a chill up your spine.”
-Morgan, “Rebecca Gibbs”
“Snuggling down in bed, under the covers, listening to the wind, rain, or snow outside my windows.
Holding hands with my husband and daughter while watching TV”
-Kathy Parish, “Woman Among the Dead”
“Hello, hello world, hello calm grey skies, hello bonfires that last until morning, hello blueberry muffins, hello platonic hand holding, hello stage lights, hello choir mics, hello a chorus of hearts beating in one story, hello memories, hello future, hello pain, hello us.”
“The taste of summer’s 1st garden tomato, music, and snow in the moonlight.”
-Marcia Weiss, Director
“Hello, Hello world. Hello actors. And staff. Hello chairs, and curtains. And skrim! Oh the skrim! The trellis. And the flats. Oh audience, you are too wonderful.”
-Ace, “Howie Newsome”
“Smiling eyes, french fries, helping others, a house to clean, heated car seats, grumpy mother – because she’s 80 and still here, trees, hummingbirds, the smell of dirt in spring…I could go on.”
-Lynda, “Mrs. Webb”
“Hello, Hello world. Hello cast. Hello friends, family, and patrons. Hello life, hello love. Hello to all of you. Hello sunrise and sunsets, hello everything.
I miss you all”