Our Town

This is not a theater blog, it’s a food blog. So why, on this Friday morning, am I writing a post about “Our Town”? Specifically, the production on Barrow Street in the West Village directed by David Cromer? All I will say, here in this first paragraph, is that if you live in New York and you want to see something beautiful and powerful, an emotionally-charged and totally un-cheesy interpretation of a classic American play, rush downtown and behold this lovely, surprising and deeply moving show. If, however, you don’t live in New York or you’re stubbornly anti-theater and don’t think you’ll ever see it but you’re curious why I’m writing about it here, keep reading. Everyone else, stop now.

“Our Town” is a three act play by Thornton Wilder. Act One introduces you to the town, Grover’s Corners, and its inhabitants; Act Two features the wedding of the naively exuberant George Gibbs and Emily Webb; and Act Three, well, that’s where the play punches you in the gut.

For anyone who watched “The Wonder Years,” you know what happens: in Act Three, Emily dies. You learn she died in labor giving birth to her second child; she joins other dead citizens of Grover’s Corners and, reluctant to go to her grave, begs the Stage Manager (an eerily powerful presence) to let her re-live one day from her life one last time. He consents and she chooses her 11th birthday.

This particular production of “Our Town” uses that Act Three plot point to devastating effect. Up until this moment, the play uses theatrical conventions to create its world. Mothers mime making breakfast, George and Emily sit on chairs on tables to suggest their second floor bedrooms, an actor leads an invisible horse through the audience as he delivers milk to his neighbors. There’s very little set, very few props, it’s all stripped down, almost deconstructed.

But in that moment when she goes back–and this is the part that makes it relevant to a food blog–you start to smell something. What is it? Cornbread cooking?

Granting her wish to relive her 11th birthday, the stage manager pulls back a black curtain you’ve barely noticed the whole show. And there, right before you, is a fully fleshed out set of Emily’s childhood home, the furniture real and authentic, the windows slightly frosted from the cold outside and there, stage left, a stove where Emily’s mother’s making breakfast.

She’s heating a cast iron skillet and casually, in front of the whole audience, she adds bacon. The smell of bacon fills the theater as Emily mourns the fact that she didn’t appreciate all this when it was happening; but it’s brought to vivid life with the smells, the sound of the bacon frying as Mrs. Webb beats a bunch of eggs together to add to the skillet when the bacon’s finished.

What this moment captures so beautifully is the way that something so simple as your mother making breakfast on your 11th birthday–the sounds, the smells, the tastes–can become the most cherished memory from your life. Food is more than just nourishment, it links us to our past, to our loved ones, to our communities and to ourselves. It’s easy to write those words, but this play brings you to that conclusion viscerally. I’ve never experienced anything like that in the theater before and I think the whole audience was riveted by it, overwhelmed by all of the sensations that vanish the second the memory’s over, the stage manager closes the curtain and Emily must go to her grave.

I realize if you’ve read this far, I’ve spoiled the big surprise (but I warned you!) Even so, if you’re at all considering it, go see “Our Town.” It’s a night in the theater you won’t soon forget.

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