Grover’s Corner is a small town populated by 2,642 regular folks. They’re mostly a God-fearing people with 85 percent identified as Protestant, 12 percent Catholic and the rest “indifferent.” As one person noted, “It isn’t a very important place when you think of all New Hampshire.”
The ordinary town sets the backdrop for one of drama’s most enduring and iconic plays, “Our Town,” that opened Friday, March 8 at The Little Theatre at SF State.
“Our Town” is Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation on small town life and the delicacy of one’s time spent on Earth. It’s an oft-revived play that celebrates the seemingly smaller moments in life and resonates with a poignant message of “cease the day” that never goes out of style.
The story revolves around the blossoming romance of Emily Webb (Emily Morrell) and George Gibbs (Naseem Etemad). It follows them as precocious teenagers sharing ice cream floats after school right on through their jittery exchange of wedding vows a few years later. Along the way, the audience is introduced to the charming townspeople that decorate Grover’s Corner.
Unfortunately, it’s not all wine and roses in Wilder’s play as shown in the third and final act titled “Death and Eternity.” For all its warmth and glee, “Our Town” has an air of melancholy all throughout.
“One of the things that ‘Our Town’ preaches is that we really need to take the time to cultivate our relationships because you never know which day is going to be your last,” show director, Rhonnie Washington, said.
Washington, who also teaches acting and directing at SF State, relates to the themes presented in Wilder’s play, having himself come from the small town of Marshall, Texas.
However, Washington notes that the play’s message translates to an urban crowd like the ones in San Francisco.
“It speaks from a small town mentality but I think it speaks to everyone,” Washington said. “You don’t have to be from a small town to understand it.”
“Our Town” is narrated by the stage manager who guides the audience through an almost voyeuristic look into the lives of the townspeople of Grover’s Corners.
It’s an esteemed part in the vast canon of great theatrical roles, as it has been notably played throughout the years by heavyweights such as Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman.
For this production, Washington split the role in two and renamed them as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The couple is played by Drew Wolff and Leila N’Amara.
“We’re like the favorite teachers of the students,” Wolff, 21, said in describing his role. “It’s the omnipresent figure and if you’re an actor, you hold the position of stage manager in high reverence, because without them there wouldn’t be a show.”
The real life stage manager for “Our Town” is 19-year-old Tazwell Caputo. Similar to the role of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Caputo’s job as stage manager is to ensure that all goes smoothly in a show’s run from the moment it’s cast until the final curtain call on the last day.
Decked out in black from head to toe with the exception of a floral print scarf, Caputo is the almost invisible figure calling the queues for every performance of “Our Town,” while maintaining communication between the director, the actors and stage technicians.
It’s an overwhelming task, but Caputo understands Wilder’s choice in narrator.
“We’re the calm at the center of the storm,” Caputo said.
In a similar fashion, Mr. and Mrs. Smith step in right as characters are faced with their fleeting mortality.
“It’s the standard live life to the fullest,” Caputo said of the play’s universal message. “Life’s over before it even starts.”
“Our Town” might seem antiquated to some but Washington believes that the play is more relevant now in this digital age.
“It seems to me that perhaps more today than in times past people get so caught up with stuff, that they forget about the really important things,” Washington said.
He directs people to a quote from Wilder himself that states, “Just enjoy your ice cream while it’s still on your plate.”