We’ve just finished the first week of rehearsals for Our Town by Thornton Wilder. It’s a play I’ve wanted to produce for 35 years now, having set out to do exactly that as a young director at the beginning of his life in the theatre. What is it about this play that takes hold of me? Why does it matter?
On the first day of rehearsal, we talked about the play’s relevance to Rosebud, to the modern world and more. We talked about the fact that Thornton Wilder somehow found language for the unique place each one of us holds in our blink of a lifetime. And his conclusions are so open-ended, so wonderfully human. Our Town is a celebratory play that finds it’s inspiration in the everyday that holds us in common. It is so deftly written, filled with searing revelations that we've all had in those moments where we've opened our eyes to the drama of our lives.
The story, like most of ours, is simple. Two families live side by side in a small town in New Hampshire called Grovers Corners. A boy and a girl grow up side by side and get married. The play moves through the most important seasons of life - the growing up, the falling in love and the dying. And the story is told by the middle-aged, the young and the wise - each generation holding a different often humorous point of view, colliding into the lives of the couple of kids at the centre of the story. The wonder of it is that everybody’s story can be found in the pages of the script. That’s maybe why this play is one of the theatre’s greatest classics - produced over and over again. It’s astonishingly simple, a prophetic observation of the richness of our lives. Every life has drama.
In that first read, I shared something I had written some time ago that seemed to resonate with the spirit of this simple, yet richly dramatic play. I’d like to share it with you in the hope that it would give you a sense of how this particular play resonates with this particular director’s heart.
We were coming back from the mountains in August, the whole family having grabbed the only two whole days to be together. I was listening to an album of instrumental hymns - Softly and Tenderly was playing as we drove past farms and homes along the highway. It was so surreal. I had this sense that life was simply a glimpse, an insignificant hiccup in eternity. We passed old farm houses, falling apart, their windows broken out, the siding aged into brown and gray, trees growing through the roofs. We passed cemeteries with fresh mounds as well as old headstones, churches that had only aging adherents coming to them, fields that had been cleared by people of my Dad’s generation. As the car sped past all of these images, they blurred, as blinks of an eye whose sight is impaired by a growing teardrop. It was as if I could see it all, see the present within the context of eternity, spinning past us like so many light year moments, rushing into space. All of those homesteads built by enterprising young couples building a future are now the past. And not even a hundred years have passed. This country is so young.
It’s so strange to be caught in that blur, realizing that the present is the past in a heartbeat - in a failed heartbeat...
There’s a Neil Young song called Comes A Time, with a lyric “This old world keeps spinning round. It’s a wonder tall trees aint laying down.” Well. They are laying down - hundreds and thousands of them on forest floors, their sapling to mature lives finished - now dilapidated, rotting ruins returning to the earth. And others are the siding in those old dilapidated farmhouses, or the pickets in those leaning unpainted fences held up by overgrown rose bushes, new saplings growing in their decaying structures.
There comes a time when one realizes that all of this present is just life, and it’s all really only about living and loving. Thousands of souls living and loving, planting gardens in the spring, trimming rose bushes and collecting berries in the summer, raking leaves in the fall, waiting for spring while keeping warm in winter. And, if they are blessed, they get to do it with someone. They get to share it with people they love more than life - with children who live from the fruits of their labor, with a lover whose face never tires to the sight, with parents whose lives continue to engage.
I am struck by the fact that we spend most of our lives creating some kind of heaven, some kind of momentary bliss, be it a meal, a garden, a newly painted room, a new pair of shoes. We spend our lives making the act of sustenance mean something, last longer.
I wonder whether that is ultimately God’s greatest pleasure, his reason for everything. I wonder whether the world was meant to be a place where love released in ordinary acts becomes the biosphere God sees from heaven, the safety that holds life in place, propagating, writing, celebrating, singing, holding and more. And maybe that’s all we are in the end, the sum total of our love, holding the world together, even when we’ve left it. Maybe that’s all humanity adds up to. A cloud of protective soul’s love surrounding a jewel in the universe.
So I live in hope that love incarnate will actually make a difference in the lives we touch ... the thing that is eternal, forever, the breath of life itself. And if God is love, then maybe he really is. And maybe there really is a place where love floats in some transcendent cloud of individuals, able to touch and taste and hear and see that the Lord is good, that life is eternal, that we are outside of time.