In 1938, playwright Thornton Wilder’s Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Staged simply with almost no scenery but featuring a stage manager as a kindly narrator, gently guiding audiences through the action, it’s about the daily lives of two families as their children fall in love, marry and eventually die.
The story is set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, in the first decade of the 20th century. But Wilder’s themes had a universality that continues to ring true today.
Nevertheless, one might ask if it’s a play that can advance the education of Xavier’s theater majors.
Stephen Skiles, director of Xavier’s theater program, tells CityBeat that Our Town’s themes are a good fit with several campus organizations presenting “Spirituality and the Arts” events this fall. One of those will be a talk-back after an Our Town performance.
“We all go back to the pandemic,” Skiles points out. “There was so much loss, not only of life, but of time and connection and relationships. Our Town was in the back of my mind as I considered shows for this year. I read it one afternoon and before I knew it, I was crying. I was incredibly moved. It has a hopeful yet realistic side to it when it deals with some of these issues.”
He cites a speech by a young woman about how we too often miss out on the beauties of life.
“[Things that are] right in front of us. That feels like a really important message for our students,” Skiles says. “It’s often in my mind – this story and these people. The simplicity of this story and these people — there’s a reason this play has stuck around. I really wanted students to participate in this story.”
Skiles sought out Aaron Rossini, a professional director and founder of New York City’s Fault Line Theatre, to stage Our Town. At first glance, Rossini — a graduate of Miami University — might seem an unusual choice, since his theater focuses on new plays. But Xavier has benefited from Rossini and others from Fault Line who have come to campus to workshop new scripts, sometimes taking them to full productions.
“What is so compelling about Our Town is that its ubiquity is well earned. It connects simply and directly to American audiences,” Rossini tells CityBeat. “It does that fine dance between being saccharine and appropriately self-reflective and nostalgic. Our Town goes right up to the edge but never gets into the ‘Lifetime [or] Hallmark original-movie’ kind of thing. It’s grounded emotionally in a realistic space.”
Rossini has developed new plays while working with Xavier theater students, but this time around, Skiles suggested Our Town.
“I’m never going to do this play in my theater company. We are proud to do new plays, and it is meaningful to do that. But boy, oh, boy, do I love that show!” Rossini recalls thinking then. “We wanted to do something that would give students a lot of opportunities.”
The size of the production’s cast provided some inspiration to Rossini, as well.
“Our Town has a big cast. When Stephen put that on the list, it lit up for me, because it’s not something I would normally give myself the opportunity to work on,” Rossini says. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve worked on a play where the writer was not sitting next to me.”
Asked what he’s doing to bring Our Town’s story out of a New England town and into the present at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Rossini says he envisions telling “the story of today using Wilder’s words from the past.” He says the play’s title implies not just the specific New Hampshire setting, but all the towns and locales where it’s produced.
Rossini says he wants to find ways to incorporate Xavier’s theater department into the design of the show.
“We’re not going to change any words,” Rossini says. “We’re not going to alter the text to make it seem like conceptually we’re in a section of Cincinnati in the middle of campus. But I want the actors to think about their experiences in the world right now.”
He says to do that, a set piece from a recent production might be leaning against a wall.
“Is there something that feels like what happened last year at Xavier?” Rossini wonders. “Rather than making Grover’s Corners new, what do we have in our possession that can tell the ‘our town’ of the story – the ‘Xavier town’?”
Rossini agrees with Skiles that Wilder’s play addresses issues that come up in everyday small town life.
“I really want the students to think about the ways that global issues affect them, personal issues, political issues. What does it mean to fall in love and get married and lose your wife at such a young age?” Rossini says. “Even if you’re doing a period piece – say, Romeo and Juliet – it still has to be about right now.
“Wilder has given us a very loose container to fill with the contemporary world. That’s what I want to focus on and that’s how I’ve interpreted the lines,” he continues.
Staging shows within a college theater program is also about training young actors. Rossini says his goal is to teach students to rehearse a play with positive results.
“I want them to bring tools they’ve learned like script analysis, acting and movement into our rehearsals and make bold and brave choices that are based in what the author has offered in his text, so they can tell the story in a way that’s clear and theatrical and fun and repeatable,” Rossini says. “I treat the students as professionals and show them how to successfully rehearse a play.”
Our Town is a powerful vehicle to teach these lessons. Xavier’s cast of 15 young actors will gain meaningful experience while working on one of the great American plays. That’s what theater education is all about.
Xavier University will present Our Town Nov. 18-20 at the Gallagher Student Center Theatre, 3800 Victory Pkwy., Evanston. Info: xavier.edu/theatre-program.
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