By Bridgette M. Redman
Few American plays are more beloved than Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” With a message about appreciating each other and being grateful for what we have, it continues to be powerfully relevant.
Those are just a few of the reasons that the Pasadena Playhouse’s next livestream is a celebration of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
“Another Day’s Begun: Exploring Our Town on PlayhouseLive” will premiere at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11, and then be available as of March 12 for on-demand viewing.
The event will be hosted by Jane Kaczmarek, an actress known for playing “Lois” in “Malcolm in the Middle,” and author Howard Sherman, who just published the book “Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century.”
Kaczmarek played the stage manager in the 2017 Pasadena Playhouse/Deaf West production.
The livestream will include a discussion of the book and excerpts of “Our Town” performed by Kaczmarek, Youssef Kerkour, Keith Randolph Smith and Alexandria Wailes.
To view the free episode, audiences can create a free account at playhouselive.org and then watch the free episode on any of the apps including Apple OS, Android OS, Roku, and FireTV. Elizabeth Greene will provide closed captioning and ASL. After the live event, Spanish captioning will be available.
Making an impact
The March 11 livestream will be a reunion of sorts between Kaczmarek and Sherman. He interviewed Kaczmarek for his chapter on the Pasadena Playhouse/Deaf West production.
“We got on like a house on fire,” Kaczmarek said. “We had the same experiences with the play. We had just a devotion to it and how it has fed us over the years.”
Sherman interviewed more than 100 artists about their experiences with the play and how it affected them. The book shows “Our Town” is more than just a vintage slice of life of the early 20th century, but rather a compelling and important story for the 21st century.
The play, it argued, is complex amid its simplicity and filled with eternal themes that are especially compelling to a world that is beset by multiple crises. That relevance and the play’s pervasiveness in American culture is why, the book posits, “Our Town” remains important, essential and beloved.
Sherman’s book features 13 productions of “Our Town,” with the Pasadena Playhouse/Deaf West’s 2017 version starring Kaczmarek on the cover.
It was a landmark production for many reasons. It starts with casting a woman as the stage manager, and continuing to partner between Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West. Deaf West cast nonhearing actors in many roles, including that of Emily, one of the play’s main characters, who was played by Wailes. They committed to casting diverse actors for the roles.
“We had a lot of diversity between the deaf and the people of color,” Kaczmarek said. “The role of the stage manager takes on a whole new color when a woman plays it, being a mother and a bystander through most of this. It’s usually played by some guy in a hat and a pipe leaning on the edge of the stage narrating what is going to happen.”
She said she got involved in ways a man might not be able to pull off. She and Wailes bonded like a mother and daughter. She said she could show tenderness, something that might seem inappropriate for a man.
“It was exciting to create this as a woman doing the stage manager and what became available to me as a woman and a mother,” Kaczmarek said. “It was really just an extraordinary experience.”
Deaf West’s involvement underscored the themes of connection and how often we fail to communicate with each other because of some barrier or another.
“People were becoming so polarized in this country,” Kaczmarek said of the 2017 environment in which the play was performed. “Having to communicate with a person who doesn’t hear your language and being a hearing person who doesn’t understand their language, American Sign Language, you have to find a way of connecting with each other. That was really the most profound experience I’ve ever had in my life as an actress.”
Connecting over a classic
Artistic director Danny Feldman was still new to the Playhouse when he went to Massachusetts to see Kaczmarek in a play. He asked her to be on the board and he wanted to see her act. After the show, they met and spoke about the upcoming season.
“We talked for two hours in the parking lot in the hot sun about how much we loved ‘Our Town,’” Kaczmarek said. “‘Our Town’ is my favorite play. I’ve directed it, been in it. It is one of those perfect plays in my opinion. I was so grateful there was going to be a theater in the community that was under new management and had a place for me.”
Their passion for this 1938 play set from 1901 to 1913 stems in part because it is simple on one level. It has no set and almost no props. It is set in a theater and challenges audiences to listen to each other.
“We’re all so busy that when something happens like someone dies, the grief is always going to be there, but you just wish you had time to go back and enjoy the little things in live,” Kaczmarek said.
That message, she said, was before social media and devices that keep people from actively engaging with each other.
“The thought of even writing this in 1938 because people were too busy and not paying attention,” Kaczmarek said. “Oh, Thornton Wilder, you have no idea where we went from there.”
Kaczmarek saw “Our Town” when she was in high school. She’d never heard of the play, but her date took her to a production of it at Milwaukee Rep.
“I found myself crying hysterically at the end,” Kaczmarek said. “I was using the program to wipe my nose. I was so moved by this play and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. Can theater make people feel like this? Think like this? Feel like this?’ It was such a lightning bolt to think theater had this ability to make people appreciate their life and slow down.”
It was something that changed the way she thought about the arts. From that point forward, whenever she read a book or saw a play or movie, she would look for the “Our Town” moment — some moment that would overwhelm her with gratitude for life and the simplicity of the “sacred ordinary.”
The play, she said, is also something that evolves as times change.
“It’s so interesting to read that play as life goes on,” Kaczmarek said. “What you get out of it is different reading it every couple years, or after a decade. It is so different from the last time you read it. You’re growing older, you know more about life and loss. Anyone who thinks, ‘Oh posh, it’s “Our Town,” I’ve seen that,’ might want to check in to see how pertinent the message is and how profound that simplicity is, even so many years after it was written.”