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The author of a new book about Our Town on his evolving relationship with the work
Sometimes you fall in love with a play at first sight. With others, it takes a few viewings. For Howard Sherman, it wasn't until he was deep into writing his new book Another Day's Begun: Thornton Wilder's Our Town in the 21st Century that he realized he was smitten. Here's the story of how he came to be captivated by this classic.
The romantic version of this tale should begin with something along the lines of, "I've been in love with Our Town since I first read it as a teen, and I just knew I was destined to write a book about it." However, that would be entirely untrue.
When I proposed what became Another Day's Begun: Thornton Wilder's Our Town in the 21st Century to Dom O'Hanlon, a commissioning editor at Methuen Drama, I did so because I believed he might go for it, and because I thought there was an untapped niche in the marketplace. It turned out that both were true.
I didn't have a burning desire to explore the play. I only pitched it because Dom had approached me asking whether I'd "ever thought about writing a book." I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity and I needed to come up with ideas—fast. Another Day's Begun was one of many.
I was not ignorant of Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play of course. I have not one but two paperback copies of it that date back to my high school years just outside New Haven, when I compulsively purchased scripts from used bookstores around the Yale University campus. The funny thing is, I don't have any memory of reading or seeing the play back then. While I was an avid drama kid, there wasn't a production of the play at my school, and it wasn't in the English curriculum either. And even though Our Town got one of its periodic boosts in popularity thanks to a 1977 TV version starring the late Hal Holbrook, I don't recall watching it. In those pre-home video days, if you didn't catch something when it aired, it was gone.
My tastes in drama in my teens definitely ran to the darker side of things. In high school, my most memorable experiences at the theatre were a Yale Rep production of Buried Child and the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. Then came Athol Fugard and August Wilson, thanks again to Yale Rep. What little I knew of Our Town didn't draw me in, and while those paperbacks remained on my shelves, they were either unread or unremembered.
My memory of the first time I saw the play (so far as I recall) isn't particularly vivid. It was opening night at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre in 1987, and the production starred (once again) Hal Holbrook. I remember the set—a white back wall that wasn't the theatre's real back wall—was designed by my friend Michael H. Yeargan. Unlike some people I encounter who maintain an active dislike for the work, I wasn't dismissive of Our Town. It just didn't get its hooks into me immediately the way other plays and musicals had.
That began to change a little over ten years ago thanks to David Cromer's production, which began in Chicago and moved Off Broadway, where it became New York City's longest-running production of the play to date.
I saw David's mounting twice. The first time I attended, I admired it enormously, appreciating the way he had ever so subtly shaped the play for modern sensibilities while staying true to its timeless appeal. He also created a startling coup de théâtre late in the production that was stunning. When I returned for another viewing, it wasn't out of a desperate urge to watch the show again, but rather to see Michael McKean as the Stage Manager. I had developed a cordial relationship with Michael over several years, aided by seeing him regularly at our shared subway stop.
That second visit to that Our Town hit me like a ton of bricks—I was in tears from the moment the third act began. While I know it would be flattering for me to say that it was Michael's expert handling of the role that provoked the response (and he was terrific), it was really due to the recent loss of a longtime friend, Associated Press drama critic Michael Kuchwara. I was still raw from his death, and George's pain over Emily became mine for Mike. My sorrow could not be contained.
That I had a comparable reaction when I saw the play in 2013 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility was surprising, since I imagined I would be more caught up in the surroundings of a maximum-security prison than the play itself. But during that production, my tears began even earlier, in Act II as the wedding commenced, because I knew what was to follow. The forthcoming loss overtook any joy I might find in a happy ritual (though in Wilder's telling the ceremony is deeply ambivalent). Only later did I realize that the pain of loss in the play was a reminder of my father's passing just a year earlier, which remains, then as now, eternally fresh, and therefore eternally raw in my mind.
I don't know that I was specifically thinking about my profound emotional responses to these two productions when I pitched my book idea to Dom over breakfast in London in September 2018, but they no doubt deserve credit. They were the foundation of my later-in-life appreciation for the play, which had already prompted me to write a short essay for American Theatre magazine earlier in 2018 about how the play seemed to be in the zeitgeist, as a number of significant productions were happening in the US and the UK. The book became an opportunity to expand on that kernel of an idea.
The book is now reaching readers—and I have reached a new phase in my relationship with Our Town. I am far from immune to it, as I was in my youth, although in familiarity I am not easily prompted to tears either. After spending 18 months talking with more than 100 people who have been involved in 21st-century productions of the play, I have a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the work. I can truthfully say that I have come to love it precisely because I know so much about it. I would not have named it as one of my favorite plays when I proposed the book. I would unequivocally do so now. Of course, if you're going to spend a couple of years exploring aspects of a single work of literature, that's definitely the right trajectory.
I hope I'll have occasion to talk about Another Day's Begun, and therefore Our Town, for years to come. But I also hope I can separate from the play enough to respond to it emotionally once again—to realize Our Town fully, every, every minute, not just with my head, but with my heart.
Another Day's Begun: Thornton Wilder's Our Town in the 21st Century is available on Amazon.
Top image: Michael McKean in Our Town directed by David Cromer at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2010. Photo by Carol Rosegg.