I was happy to see my daughter Claire step into my shoes. Thank goodness she didn’t have to wear my mustache.
Claire played the Stage Manager in her high school’s production of “Our Town” last weekend. It’s the same role her father played in his high school’s production of the classic play some 26 or 27 or 28 years ago. I’d figure out the exact number, but math never was my best subject. Just ask my high school algebra teacher.
I preferred English. But one reading assignment I didn’t care for was “Our Town.” It’s long, there’s no action and this long-winded narrator named the Stage Manager just won’t shut up. Couldn’t the writer have thrown in a lightsaber duel or some fart jokes to liven things up?
When the director of our school’s fall play chose “Our Town” my junior year, I was disappointed. “That play’s a snooze,” I said. “And there’s no place in it for my latest fart jokes.”
I auditioned anyway, and was cast as the Stage Manager. I got to wear a fedora and a salt-and-pepper mustache. By the end of the production, I came to appreciate not only the spirit gum remover that allowed me to shed the mustache after each performance, but Thornton Wilder’s subtly beautiful script. My affection for the piece only grew as I matured. (Not that I’ve fully matured: I still love fart jokes.)
I split the Stage Manager role with a friend who would become Claire’s godfather. Claire’s mother played the female lead, Emily Webb. What can I tell you? Lancaster is a small town.
A generation earlier, my mother played Mrs. Gibbs in her high school’s production of the play. Appearing in “Our Town” is, like being short-statured and delighting in one’s own puns, something of a family tradition.
I doubt we’re the only family that has seen multiple generations play the residents of Grover’s Corners, N.H. “Our Town” is a staple of high school theater programs because its sparse set is cheap and its large cast can accommodate dozens of aspiring actors. The trouble is that teenagers are ill-equipped to grasp the subject matter. Their life stories are pristine sheets of paper that, unlike my algebra homework, have not yet been irrevocably creased.
My fellow Stage Manager and I grilled our director about the play’s message one night. Our take? “The writer is saying everyone’s lives are basically the same, there’s nothing special about any of it, and we might as well cue up ‘Dust in the Wind.’” We were high school boys and complete morons. But I repeat myself.
Standing in for Wilder, who surely would’ve rather swallowed tacks than explain his Pulitzer Prize-winning script to a couple of numbskulls, our director said the play illustrates how every life, no matter how unremarkable, has meaning. That everyday occurrences are miracles. And that we don’t take the time to appreciate any of it.
The sun comes up every day. It’s a beautiful, marvelous wonder that we take for granted. People get married every day, no big deal, right? Except when you take a moment to think about people being are so filled with love for one another and hope for their future that they pledge the rest of their lives to one another. It’s awe-inspiring.
People die every day, too. That may seem like a matter of course until you lose someone close, and your life is never the same. In time the pristine sheet detailing your life story gets crumpled, and once it’s wrinkled there’s no straightening it.
Did Claire and her castmates understand all this by the end of last weekend’s run? Probably not. As the Stage Manager says, the only people who appreciate life while they live it are saints and poets. I know when I was in high school, I was too preoccupied with rolling my jeans tight at the ankle to ruminate on common experiences that bind us as a species.
It’s only years later that teens come to understand the wisdom in Wilder’s words, when they’re growing their own mustaches and silver hair. In Claire’s case, I hope she grows the latter, not the former.