Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Mother's Day Memory

A re-post from Mother's day, 2016:

Revisiting Our Town (a Mother's Day Memory)

Fredonia State University of New York photo

It may have been the first play I ever saw and it is certainly my earliest recollection of live theater. I must have been around 7 years old. While I did not follow the story line at such a young age, it was all such a fascinating experience. I knew many of the actors who were in the senior class at Dadeville High School and I knew the director, Mary Kinnaird. She was the high school English teacher and she also happened to be my mother. The play was Our Town, by Thornton Wilder.

It must have been quite a big night for the town as well. I recall my mother saying years later that as they were working out the logistics she mentioned to the high school principal the matter of paying royalties out of the proceeds from the play. “Royalties?” he said with astonishment, “I never heard of doing a senior play that required paying royalties!” That became the routine, however, as my mother continued to produce the high school senior plays over the years. She guided future students in a variety of plays that included I remember Mama, Cheaper by the Dozen, You Can't Take It with You, and Pygmalion.

The Play is the Thing

Our Town was first performed in 1938 and found immediate success on Broadway, earning a Pulitzer Prize for Thornton Wilder. The play has had continued success down through the years as a classic American play. From that high school performance that I witnessed years ago, I was left with vivid memories.

Even though I saw the play at a very young age, I can still recall some of the scenes. I remember the stage manager who kept the audience informed about the action on stage, the paperboy delivering the morning news; I remember the actors using step ladders to simulate looking out upstairs windows in neighboring houses; and I remember the lovely Emily who was played by high school senior, Carol Jane Meigs. I can still see her in that white dress bidding a tearful good-bye to Grover’s Corners as she played the part of Emily.
Perhaps the reason I have had Our Town on my mind is that Mother’s Day is approaching as well as my mother’s birthday. She would have been 95 years old on May 10 if she were still living.  I decided that I would honor my mother's memory by viewing the play that she directed so many years ago.

Since it is one of the most frequently performed plays in the country, I was hoping to find a recording of it.  Upon visiting the public library, I was excited to find a DVD recording of a 1996 production that had aired on Showtime and on PBS. It was directed by Joanne Woodward, and starred her husband, Paul Newman, as the stage manager. I happily checked out the DVD and viewed it a few days later when I had a quiet span of time to give to the viewing.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the play presents ordinary scenes from the lives of people in a small ordinary town, Grover’s Corners, in New Hampshire. In the words of the stage manager, “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and our dying.” As I watched the play unfold on the screen, I had another play going on inside my head. I was re-envisioning that spring night in 1962 when the Dadeville High School production took place. I loved the way the audience was drawn into the play at the bidding of the stage manager; I was intrigued by the minimalist stage setting which allowed closer attention to the conversation; and I was amazed that this very production had taken place in the small town of Dadeville, Alabama.

The Gift of Live Theater

With a population of around 3,000 people, my hometown of Dadeville was comparable to Grover’s Corners, which the play tells us had a population of 2,642. The people I knew growing up lived according to the customs of the day, not unlike the people depicted in Thornton Wilder’s play. As I watched the drama of Our Town play out, I realized that my mother’s production of the play was great gift. It was a gift to the graduating seniors to be involved in such a production and it was a larger gift to the community to give the people a chance to look thoughtfully at their lives for just a moment.

The stage manager put it this way: “Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal...everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.”

In Act III, Emily, who had died in childbirth observed, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She made that observation after having been given the chance to revisit the world for one day. She had chosen what she remembered as a happy day, her 12th birthday.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?” she asked while looking on her family’s interactions on the day she chose to return to life.

“No,” replied the stage manager, “saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”

“In Our Living and Our Dying”

I cannot say how the townsfolk reacted after that production of Our Town. I’m sure they all thought it was a nice play, and I’m sure parents were proud of the production that their high school children had accomplished. I have to think that some, at least, took time to reflect upon the life that they were living. I know that the actual lives of the actors played out in ways that were similar to the characters on stage. Some died too young; most went on to ordinary lives of marriages and mortgages. There were also disruptions that lay just ahead: the assassination of a president, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, Woodstock – all of these cultural markers of my generation were yet to be encountered by that small tight-knit community.

All of these years later, I am all the more impressed and thankful for the role my mother played in bringing good things to a small mill town in the South. One of the characters in Our Town said, “There isn't much culture...Robinson Crusoe and the Bible; Handel's 'Largo,' we all know that: and Whistler's 'Mother' -- those are just about as far as we go.” We didn’t have a lot of culture in our little town either, but there was one high school English teacher who brought gifts from Thornton Wilder, George Bernard Shaw, and other playwrights to enrich the lives of students and others in the community. 

In her annual production of those senior high school plays, my mother gave the town a few moments to listen to “the saints and the poets.” She enabled us all to ever so briefly recall the truth that “There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.”


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