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Out of the Woods / Stages of life truly told in 'Our Town'

Published 7:59 am, Thursday, September 12, 2013
  • Over his 46 years in Westport, Westport News columnist Woody Klein has seen many changes -- a theme embodied in Thornton Wilder's classic, "Our Town." Here, in a rehearsal photo from a 2002 production of the play at the Westport Country Playhouse, longtime Westport resident Paul Newman, right, is shown with director/actor James Naughton. Newman portrayed the Stage Manager. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    Over his 46 years in Westport, Westport News columnist Woody Klein has seen many changes -- a theme embodied in Thornton Wilder's classic, "Our Town." Here, in a rehearsal photo from a 2002 production of the play at the Westport Country Playhouse, longtime Westport resident Paul Newman, right, is shown with director/actor James Naughton. Newman portrayed the Stage Manager. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Change, it has been said, is the one constant in life. As I begin my forty-sixth year in Westport, I have witnessed this truism played out, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. Looking back at all that has happened to our town and its residents, I feel a little bit like the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's 1938 play, "Our Town," the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of life in a small fictitious New England town called Grover's Corners.

As the former New York Times theater critic, Brooks Atkinson, once described this incisive American drama: "Taking as his material three periods in the history of a placid New Hampshire town, Mr. Wilder has transmuted the simple events of human life into universal reverie, has given familiar facts a deeply moving, philosophical perspective. `Our Tow,' is one of the finest achievements of the current stage."

Atkinson's comment was part of a highly favorable review that was published in The Times Feb. 5, 1938.

The play is really a story told by the stage manager or narrator, in which the routine conversations and actions of residents in a community remind the theater-goer of the painful contradiction in life: while we all go about our daily activities, we hardly have time to stop and fully appreciate life itself and how precious it is.

I am deeply moved by the perspective I have gained all these years, especially when I drive by Compo Beach and see second or third generations of families enjoying the beauty there. I realize how transient time is, and how quickly it has passed.

The narrator introduces each character in the drama, which unfolds gradually. In the early stages, two young people marry and have a long, seemingly endless life to look forward to. Reality awakens the audience when the young woman, Emily, dies unexpectedly but wants to come back to watch herself and her mother in a touching flashback filled with regrets and poignant memories.

Emily, who already has taken her place in a cemetery, sees what her life was all about. She says: "Good-bye world, good-bye Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths .and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

Emily looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears: "Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?"

The stage manager answers "No. The saints and poets, maybe -- they do some."

Emily then says she is ready to return to the cemetery. Her mother asks: "'Were you happy?"

Emily replies: "No. I should have listened to you. That's all human beings are. Just blind people"

At that point, another deceased character, speaks from the cemetery: "Now you know. Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of others about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know -- that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness."

That's the cynical, downbeat view of life. Make no mistake about it. We do make choices. And then we must live with them. "Our Town" offers all of us an opportunity to examine our lives in light of the lessons it offers.

I am mindful of the opportunity to make the most of each day and appreciate everyone and everything we share on earth because of the recent death of my best friend, Howard Morse, an occasional summer resident of Westport with his wife Ann and their three children.

Howard's upbeat, constantly positive outlook served as an inspiration for me and my family. His very presence always lifted our spirits, his pleasant manner with whomever he met was a reminder to the rest of us of just how joyful and meaningful life can be.

He served as an inspiration for me for more than 50 years. He wanted to live forever and frequently said so. In my mind, he will. His energy and extraordinary ability to spread good will live on in all whose lives he touched. He will always remain at my side. To me, he represents what Thornton Wilder wrote is the true meaning of life. He embraced it to the fullest.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com