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The wide boundaries of ‘Our Town’

In Howard Sherman’s new book, ‘Another Day’s Begun,’ more than 100 actors and directors describe their journeys of discovery in Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic

Howard Sherman at East Hill Cemetery in Peterborough, N.H., the town thought to have been the inspiration for Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners.
Howard Sherman at East Hill Cemetery in Peterborough, N.H., the town thought to have been the inspiration for Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners.Steve Marsel Studio LLC

In “Another Day’s Begun,” Howard Sherman’s new history of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” actress Helen Hunt reminisces about being offered the role of Emily Webb three decades ago in a Broadway revival of Wilder’s play.

As she read “Our Town,” Hunt says, “it was familiar, but not really. I got to the goodbye speech and went ‘Oh wait, this is bigger than I knew.’”

There, in a nutshell, is the experience many people have when they actually read or see “Our Town”: It’s familiar, but not really, and bigger than they knew.

Boston theatergoers were among the first to see the original staging of “Our Town,” which is grounded in the lives, loves, and deaths of residents in the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners in the early 20th century.

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After a single world-premiere performance at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., on Jan. 22, 1938, “Our Town” traveled immediately to Boston — then a major pre-Broadway tryout town — for what was supposed to be a two-week engagement at the Wilbur Theatre. But ticket sales were slow, and producer-director Jed Harris opted to cut the run to one week and bring the production straight to New York.

Sherman, a writer and theater advocate who has held top administrative positions in the American Theatre Wing, Goodspeed Musicals, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, set out to explore the journeys of discovery or rediscovery taken by actors and directors in a wide range of “Our Town” productions. He interviewed approximately 115 theater artists.

Even a partial list suggests the ground covered in “Another Day’s Begun” (Methuen Drama/Bloomsbury Publishing), which is slated for publication Jan. 28: David Cromer’s acclaimed Off-Broadway revival (which was presented in Boston by the Huntington Theatre Company); a performance by prisoners in Sing Sing, the maximum-security penitentiary; a Broadway production that starred Paul Newman as the Stage Manager and originated at Westport (Conn.) Country Playhouse, where Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, was artistic director; an “Our Town” presented in both spoken English and American Sign Language by Deaf West Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse; and one performed in English, Spanish, and Creole by Florida’s Miami New Drama.

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Sherman spoke with the Globe by telephone last week.

Q. Could you talk about how the play resonates in, and speaks to, different eras?

A. Like any work of art, we tend to perceive it through our current situation, what surrounds us, whether it’s personally or politically or socially. In any of the productions, what was going on in the world determined how you heard the play. In the Sing Sing production, when you are sitting in a maximum-security prison visiting room and the cast has to be finished by a certain time so they can be back in their cells, suddenly the line that Emily has — that people are “all just shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?” — pings out at you in a very different way.

When Sarah Frankcom did it at the Royal Exchange in Manchester [England], it was in direct response to the arena bombing that had happened there only a few months earlier, which is comparable to Joanne Woodward’s decision to do it at Westport [Conn.] as a response to 9/11. Its call to people to appreciate what they have while they have it is very meaningful in times of crisis.

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Looking at “Our Town” during a pandemic puts a whole new cast on it, because for those who are adhering to CDC guidelines, there is some equivalency to Emily looking to the world that she is not part of any longer. The men at Sing Sing made the same comparison. I think Wilder’s brilliance was constructing a play that certainly has specificity of place in the script — the details of Grover’s Corners, the details of life on the farm — but the more important aspects of the play are the emotional and the human. So it can be done anywhere.

Q. I’m interested in hearing about the experimental and innovative aspects of “Our Town,” perhaps insufficiently appreciated.

A. Inevitably, [with] any work that is groundbreaking in a particular era and is adopted widely, we forget how surprising it may have been in its day. In “Our Town,” Wilder absolutely said at the time that he was taking techniques from Greek theater, from Japanese theater. Even the idea of a play that had no scenery was not new with “Our Town.” But what was more unique — that people may fail to appreciate — is Act 3. We certainly have had plays for centuries in which there are deaths. But usually when someone passes, we stay with the people who are experiencing the loss. “Our Town” takes a total change in perspective in that we follow the person who was lost, and the people they encounter after their passing, who have also passed. When people see Emily in Act 3 and realize that she’s gone, it’s pretty shocking.

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Q. Did you find there were differences in how professional and nonprofessional actors described their experiences with and responses to “Our Town”?

A. I don’t think there’s any difference in response. Everybody came to not just an appreciation but, by and large, a reverence for the play. How they got there and what they saw in their own characters or other characters varied. What I tried to do with the book was to represent what was going in those people’s lives as they were doing the play. I hope the book shows people there’s more than one way to approach this play, that it need not be what it was in 1938 in order to be true to Thornton Wilder.

From left: Therese Plaehn, David Cromer, and Derrick Trumbly in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Our Town" in 2012. Cromer, who played the Stage Manager, also directed the play.
From left: Therese Plaehn, David Cromer, and Derrick Trumbly in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "Our Town" in 2012. Cromer, who played the Stage Manager, also directed the play. T. Charles Erickson

Q. Some of the people you interviewed talked about how “Our Town” is one of those rare plays that can be equally powerful whether done by professionals or by high schoolers. What do you think accounts for that?

A. I think its simplicity allows its meaning to come through, no matter what or where it is done. There are not, perhaps with the exception of Emily, massive acting challenges in the play, [though] obviously professionals have tools which allow them to add elements and nuances that may not be there when nonprofessionals do the play. But since the core of the play, the story that the Stage Manager is telling us, is parents and children and life and death, that is accessible to anyone performing it, and anyone watching it. They’re templates onto which we project what’s going on in our own lives. That the Stage Manager is an utter mystery is fascinating: He’s something more than a Greek chorus, but he is the blankest of slates. Who guides us through the story can have an enormous influence on how we see it.

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Q. Is this play often performed internationally?

A. It’s been translated into 80 languages. It’s done all over and it continues to be. The people who want to pigeonhole it as “Oh, it’s a play about America around 1910″: Clearly, if it were that, it would not have the life it has even in America, let alone the international acceptance. There’s something about the play that transcends any specificity. You can reflect your own time and place, where the play is being done, without ever violating the text or the spirit of the play. David Cromer did it in present-day dress; Miami New Drama did it in three languages which were the three dominant languages in Miami. Right now we see the show done with the Stage Manager being a Middle Eastern man, a Black man, a woman, women of color. It can be many things.

Interview was edited and condensed.


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.