Almost two years ago, the world was shut down. Human beings, collectively, began to realize how precious life was and how human connection had become a rarity. As the SUNY Plattsburgh community is slowly venturing back into offline campus life, it was necessary to be reminded of what it is like to be human — at its core. The Theatre Department’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” did exactly that.
The director, Julia Devine was interested in directing the play after she did it with her Introduction to Acting class in Spring 2020. Due to COVID-19 and online classes, the play proved to be even more touching and significant than it originally had been. The play focuses on the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners and its residents from the years 1901 to 1913. It is a metatheatrical play consisting of three acts: “Daily Life”,”Love and Marriage”, and “Death and Eternity.”
Devine came across a version of the play performed at Miami New Drama where the playwright Nilo Cruz had translated the Webb family’s lines into Spanish. She felt that this version would represent the campus community well as the Latinx population is the second-largest ethnic group in the country.
“Every actor came from a home where one or both parents spoke Spanish,” Devine said. “I did have to get special permission from the Wilder estate to do this new version with just the Spanish translations. It was important to have our Grover’s Corners represent who we are here and who we are in many multicultural and multilingual communities across the country.”
Devine said it was challenging to put the show together. Everyone was navigating their way post-pandemic. The students were doing a live production after a while. Some students were acting in their first production. Some of them were acting in Spanish for the first time, several were also singing in the play, some played multiple characters and one cast member was acting in her 4th language.
The cast and crew also worked with five faculty members, Fuerza, the Black and Latinx Student Union, and members of the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir. Everyone came together to make this production successful.
This particular adaptation of “Our Town” was particularly intent on including their audience. The stage managers encouraged the audience to dance during a wedding scene and there was cake for everyone to enjoy in the subsequent break that followed. What was especially powerful and touching was the idea of including a ballad version of the song 1959 from the album ‘I Had a Dream that You Were Mine’ by Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij.
“The lyrics ‘One day I’ll stop to listen’ echo Emily’s sentiment of how human beings don’t realize life while they live it,” Devine said. “We don’t always stop. We don’t always listen. Songs usually appear in plays when the emotions are so big for the characters that they have to sing. For me, this was one of those moments. I wanted the audience to really stop and listen. A song can make you do that. Several audience members were moved to tears.”
“It was the first time I saw an American play, and it was truly amazing! I enjoyed the way music was combined with dancing, featuring a capella,” says Alex, an international exchange student on campus. “My most favorite actors were Mr. and Mrs. Webb who seemed one of the most charismatic actors to me.”
For some, it resonated on a different level.
“At the beginning of the third act, I felt it was abrupt,” Yuri Chikuda, a junior, said. “But as the play came to a close, I realized that life ends abruptly too. The cast really turned something so melancholic into a beautiful goodbye.”
“Our Town” could not have been staged at a better time. Not only was it a perfect welcome back for the theatre culture in Plattsburgh but also for the community as well.