The play’s themes are Community, Death and The Weather – not necessarily in that order. And you don’t need to go to New Hampshire to get any of that. Although if you want to speak with the Down East dialect it would help.
Oh and by the way, who is the Stage Manager?
A man both of the town and beyond it, able to move in several directions in time and with the prescient knowledge of things to come and things past. His voice joins with the author’s in the play’s great invitation: to notice.
Last year 2013, was the 75th anniversary of the first production of the play in 1938, and the 38th of Thornton Wider’s death in 1975. Its content is distantly reminiscent of the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century and its form somehow gently references both the origins of theatre and the contemporaneous alienation techniques of Eastern European Drama. Last year there was an abundance of productions. This year, Palm Beach Dramaworks, in Florida, celebrates its 15th anniversary, and produces this play in celebration. It’s my fourth production here, and it is lovely to work with old friends and new ones on this exquisite, ordinary-extraordinary, beautiful play.
The play is set in New Hampshire in a small town for which the author gives map co-ordinates in the text. It’s a clever move because if you check the latitude and the longitude you end up in the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean off the New England coast. Thus, no actual town can lay claim.
But the town in Our Town is as New Hampshire as it’s possible to be – I speak as one who knows the place. I have journeyed there in all seasons, seen the leaves turn in Fall, blazing the hills with their slow motion firework display; shoveled snow at Christmas; counted churches in the towns and along the country roads.
The State motto is: Live Free Or Die. You see it stamped on vehicle number plates. Most plates are manufactured by convict labor. A real-life detail that I believe Wilder would have noted as an ironic counterpoint along the lines of the shadowy speech he gives the Stage Manager as the Minister after the wedding in Act Two.
“I’ve married over two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know … once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”
To me, accents are interesting. Nothing else quite points to both the unity and the divergence of human experience. After all, we all, all of us, all of us that ever lived or ever shall, have the same basic vocal equipment. But can you produce the clicks of the Xhosa language, the tonalities of Tibetan or Cantonese, the umlaut guttural nasalities of Scandinavia? No? Me neither … And what about the nuanced estuarine vowels now espoused by British politicians and younger Royals alike in their quest for the peoples’ favor?
To me the accent challenge on this one is as hefty as anything Ms. Streep has undertaken. In the play we are a New Hampshire community between 1901 and 1913. The accent is specific, a long way from Standard American, not so far from Boston, and with English notes in its origin.
For an Australian or a Briton to replicate an American accent authentically can be tricky. There is a long list of those who have:
Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Gary Oldman to name a few … and going the other way … Gwyneth Paltrow, Renee Zellweger, and let’s include Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth the first (although I believe I spotted two rogue Aussie vowels) … yes, but these consummate performers were on screen where a zillion takes in bite-sized nuggets, accent coaches on tap, and the magic of post, can fix it all.
One thing I love about my job is the variety. Some roles are fun, some are fantasy, others by turns: a challenge, a task, an attempt, an exploration. Seldom routine. But to play one of the great roles that is all the above and more, in company with old friends and new ones, in an iconic play that among other things, is also about … Life, Art and Truth. Well that is …