Even though the play has little to no set pieces or props, Max Henderson said what really stands out about “Our Town” is the amount of depth presented through the characters’ lives.
Sioux City Community Theatre’s latest production is performed in three acts distinctly titled “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Eternity.” Years pass by between acts, allowing conflicts and relationships to develop between the characters living in the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners from 1901 to 1913. “Their lives progress over the years,” said Henderson, who plays the part of George Gibbs. “It’s almost as if it’s placing you in their lives.”
“Our Town” is the brainchild of playwright and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thornton Wilder, who premiered the play in 1938 and has since seen numerous revivals. Actress Lindsay Washburn, who plays Emily Webb in the Sioux City Community Theatre production, said that even though the drama was released so long ago, the overall themes still apply to this day.
“I think that’s why it keeps being produced and has an impact on people,” said Washburn. The themes it talks about and showcases can still be applied to modern day life even though we’re not going to the school houses every morning; very different lives, but everything still applies.”
The overarching message of the show, she continued, is that sometimes people get so wrapped up in day-to-day life and relationships and what needs to be done and what hasn’t been done that they don’t stop and take time to really appreciate other people “and where we are on this earth.”
“That’s another thing you can apply to today because we’re all looking at our phones and doing this and doing that,” said Washburn. “We don’t stop and just observe where we are and who we’re with.”
Taking place at the turn of the century, Henderson said there’s a great deal of innocence left.
“Everyone had strict values,” he said, “and they stuck to them. People still have values [today], but they’re not as harsh as back. Nowadays we’re so open about everything. With this time period, there’s hidden meaning behind everything.”
“Our Town” also stands out for its metatheatrical devices like the minimal set pieces, the use of pantomime in place of props and the “stage manager” serving as the show’s main character that frequently addresses remarks and questions toward the audience and often plays some of the roles.
“There are costumes, but no set besides basic structures like chairs, tables and things like that,” said Washburn. “You really have to use your imagination. It adds another layer to the storytelling. Usually you have a costume, an elaborate set behind you and lighting to help you tell the story. With this, it's just what you’re saying and more so what you’re doing. You have to paint that picture for the audience.”
It’s certainly a challenge. But not having props, Henderson said, has helped the cast develop a better understanding of the characters, which in turn will likely reflect back on what the audience takes away from “Our Town.”
“We have to be the utmost version of the character,” Henderson said of the challenge.
Washburn likes the idea of having the audience use their imagination when watching “Our Town.” Each person in the audience is “going to come away with a different interpretation of what they saw.” In a sense, it’s an open-ended play.
“Each person is going to experience it differently that way,” she said.
But at the same time, the conflicts and drama present in “Our Town” will feel familiar to just about everyone. The impact of those scenes is left to the actors to make real by drawing from personal experiences.
“Love, death -- things that everyone has experienced universally,” said Washburn. “Remembering what it’s like to be a 16-year-old and feel those first butterflies, you kind of have to put yourself back into that mindset.
“When I go see a show, I want to elicit some kind of response besides just entertainment. Whether I’m laughing or crying or feeling excitement. In this show, you don’t have a lot of the huge lighting cues and there’s no music – all that stuff is stripped away. What’s left is the performance and what it conveys to the audience as far as what it means to be a human being and what we are supposed to value in our lives.”