Small is a dismissive sort of word. It’s often shadowed by other meanings: weak, unimportant, powerless. Small things are not worthy of attention. They escape our notice. They slip by.
“Small-town drama” has always been an imprecise label for Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play is giddily expansive, opening out from the minute to the cosmic. Though it’s rooted in the ancient soil of Grover’s Corners, an unremarkable little town in early-twentieth-century New Hampshire, it reaches out into the stars and beyond the grave. And yet it cares about smallness. It’s attentive to small moments, small looks, small actions. These, after all, are the stuff of life.
The smallness of individual lives is also set against the collective, be that the collective of the town or the planet or the audience. The “our” of the play’s title is a gesture of generosity, an act of inclusion. It hints, too, at a shared American patriotism – our country, our land, our town – that Wilder treats with both pride and irony. He sees the danger of small-mindedness as much as the beauty of small acts.
Sarah Frankcom’s production makes a concerted effort to resemble what was, recently and relatively briefly, my town: Manchester. A diverse and differently-abled cast populate the stage, dressed in twenty-first-century clothing and speaking – Youssef Kerkour’s affable Stage Manager excepted – without a hint of an American accent. Fly Davis’s design sits them in plastic chairs, the sort reserved for public, institutional settings: doctor’s waiting rooms, schools, church halls. There’s an apt sense of drab, unshowy community.
The approach instantly reminds me of David Cromer’s pared-back production of a few years ago, which made me fall head over heels for the play when it came to the Almeida. Frankcom similarly strips the play of the sticky layers of sentimentality it’s accrued over decades of performance, stressing instead its simple profundity. It works beautifully in the round, with audience members spilling onto the stage and mingling with the actors. In this space, we become one big mess of humanity.
In the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack, while the police cordon was still visible from the window of the flat where I was living, I was struck by the resilience and community of the city. There’s something of that sense of community here, with a cast enlarged by the Royal Exchange’s Young Company and Company of Elders and a local choir hosted in the Great Hall, though a question mark remains over how truly integral to the event these performers are. Community choruses are an increasingly prevalent feature of big productions like this, and I often wonder whether they’re simply a cheap way of getting more bodies on stage. They do, though, help to further blur the distinction between stage and audience, drawing us into the simple routines and rituals of Grover’s Corners.
For all that homely, old-fashioned simplicity, Wilder’s play has no desire – despite what many rose-tinted treatments might suggest – to make America great again. As much as it invites a dialogue with Manchester, no staging of this play at this time can escape the current political context in the US. Here, any suggestion of the sort of small-town nostalgia that has fuelled the rhetoric and arguably the rise of Donald Trump is briskly dismissed. Our Town is far more playful and experimental and progressive than its cosy image suggests, and Frankcom’s firmly contemporary production recognises that.
In this version, I’m struck by the disparities of gender. Norah Lopez Holden’s Emily, quivering on the cusp of adulthood, never gets the opportunity to use her intelligence. Despite wanting to make speeches all her life, her words don’t get much further than the boy who will become her husband. As Emily’s mother, Kelly Hotten’s wedding-day monologue about the way young girls are thrust into marriage is particularly poignant, delivered with a controlled anger and sadness – adorned, still, with appeasing, wifely smiles – that makes the smallness of women’s lives in this world all too apparent.
Wilder is perhaps best, though, at unsentimentally capturing the passing of time and the unavoidable fact of our own mortality. As the Stage Manager puts it, “there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often”. Wilder takes out and looks at death and the transience of life, in a way that’s simply and directly conveyed in Frankcom’s production. The one misstep is a brief flight into the fantastical, which unnecessarily stresses the exquisite pain of living that’s otherwise so wrenchingly evoked.
There’s a sense in Wilder’s play, albeit it a fragile one, of an enduring faith in humanity. That sense is enhanced, here, by the simplicity and collectivity of the experience. “It goes so fast we don’t have time to look at one another,” one of Wilder’s characters observes of life. In the Royal Exchange, in the round, we’re forced to look at one another – to pay attention to the small things. And it’s those small things, in the end, that are often the most precious.
Our Town is on at Royal Exchange Manchester until 14th October 2017. Book tickets here.