(Laura Collin-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/6; via Pam Green. In a Broadway production of “Our Town,” Helen Hunt, right, played Emily Webb with Jason Gedrick, left, as George Gibbs and Don Ameche as the Stage Manager.Credit…Brigitte Lacombe, via Lincoln Center Theater.)
With a history of the Thornton Wilder classic coming soon, we talk with performers who found personal inspiration in the play’s beating heart.
Life is a quiet affair in Grover’s Corners, N.H. Its citizens don’t do drama or fuss. But Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” set amid the mountains there, is no folksy paean to simplicity. It’s a boldly experimental play about the beauty of the everyday, and human beings’ tragic propensity to look right past that.
When that realization lands, late and joltingly, it arrives by way of a character we may have underestimated: Emily Webb, the brainy daughter of the town’s newspaper editor. She vows that she’ll make speeches all her life, then falls in love with George Gibbs, the boy next door. If the storytelling Stage Manager is the play’s marquee role, Emily is its beating heart — and a rare complex canonical part for young actresses just starting out.
After “Our Town” made its premiere on Jan. 22, 1938, at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., it swiftly moved to Broadway, and won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. In the decades since, it has gained a reputation for fusty sentimentality, a misperception that Howard Sherman’s new oral history, “Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ in the 21st Century” (out Jan. 28 from Methuen Drama), debunks through discussion of a dozen productions.
The New York Times chatted recently with eight actors who have played Emily: on Broadway and Off, in London and regional productions — two of them bi- or multilingual. Lois Smith, now 90, did “Our Town” a mere dozen years after its debut, on a college stage. Their thoughts on the role suggest just how capacious Grover’s Corners can be. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.