East Bay stage to present ‘Our Town’ as pandemic metaphor
By Lou Fancher
Theater demands pause. Interrupting the skirmish of life to attend a live production, we exit obsessions and enter a world in which we might recognize and draw parallels to ourselves and our families, neighbors, places, era, histories and cultures. Given an abstract form, we witness these entities with fresh eyes. Community theater performs vital roles in defining a particular group of people — framing it by character, plot, time, setting, style, language and other elements.
As such, Marilyn Langbehn, the Contra Costa Civic Theatre’s artistic director, says the selection of “Our Town” for the first live production since the COVID-19 pandemic began is deliberate. In three acts with a narrator, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic tells the story of 12 years in the lives of the Gibbs and Webb families. Wrapped within the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners and its people are everything from mundane daily trivia to romantic young love to devastating suffering and death.
“The misperception is that it’s some nostalgic, gauzy portrait of American life,” Langbehn says. “That’s not what Wilder wrote or what we’re playing. He used elements of everyday life to teach us larger issues. The stage manager (character) talks about the afterlife within the first two pages of the script. There’s no sugarcoating.”
Langbehn describes “Our Town” as a clear-eyed look at how community shapes individuals, how much people need community and what happens when that tie is broken.
“The music director in the play is a man who faded away from his community, and it killed him,” she says.
A romance between two young people, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, tracks a storyline that allows people hardwired to posit themselves as heroes in their own lives to play the role of romanticized centerpiece. It’s a narrative Langbehn insists remains prevalent in real life.
“Regardless of which side of the political narrative we’re on, progressive or not, we romanticize the side we’re on. Romanticizing isn’t telling the truth. We’ve been romanticizing what it means to be American, what it means to be in a position of authority. COVID and social justice issues have shaken the idea of what it means to be American.”
Devastation, a primary theme dealing mostly with the transience of life and failure to appreciate its beauty while living, connects the play’s takeaway with that of contemporary times during the pandemic.
“Everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by COVID: someone refusing masking, someone dying from it. In ‘Our Town,’ people cease to care about each other. They get weaned away from their humanity,” Langbehn says. “This play says the dead don’t care about us. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. They’re on to the next part of whatever this journey is. Interestingly, Wilder never talks about religion. He asks of one character, ‘What happens when your memory is gone and your identity, Mrs. Smith?’ He allows the audience to imagine their own space.”
Langbehn came to the Contra Costa Civic Theatre (CCCT) in 2013 at a time when the organization was still raw from the loss of its founders, Louis and Bettianne Flynn.
“They started this theater on a wing and a feather and built something to last,” she says. “How to make sure the legacy didn’t wither under theater that could become a museum was my priority. Ideas, programming, anything to do with the organization could not be allowed to maintain status quo without examination. Because communities change over time, the theater has to change so stories we tell have meaning for the people we’re telling them to.”
Describing theater as a two-way street, she adds, “We don’t exist until there’s someone on the other side.”
That means asking — in the language of 2021 — who has been missing onstage and in the audiences at CCCT and theaters nationwide?
“I would have to say it was mostly people of color, younger people, all sorts of marginalized cohorts. Upon my arrival and well before COVID and social justice issues rose to the forefront, we’ve wanted anyone outside of the dominant paradigm to be a part of CCCT. I want that same feeling of welcome I felt upon my arrival — for everybody who comes through the door, regardless of who they are.”
Discovering in the past 18 months unexpected “ferocity around issues of social justice,” Langbehn feels an urgent desire to “open myself up to things beyond my understanding and share power that is inherently mine as a White cis woman in an executive position.” Questions burn: How is it we can live in a country so bifurcated? Why is the rationale for COVID safety protocols obvious to some and not to others? Why is there perceived inhumanity in our justice system?
“We systematically de-educated our citizens so that if we can keep them ignorant, we can manipulate them. They don’t know what they don’t know. I’m on a hunt to learn as much as I can,” Langbehn says.
Theater and plays such as “Our Town” may or may not provide answers, but Langbehn suggests the reason Wilder’s work has been kept alive for more than 70 years centers on shared or collective humanity.
“I hope we in the United States can reconnect with the missing pieces of our humanity. We’ve seen the need for profit subsume the inherent dignity of people. What resonates clearly is you can look at the relationships in the play and say, ‘I know that. I feel that. I recognize that. I am that.’ ”