Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wilder, Wilder, Thornton Wilder

1969 was the year I left New York City. I saw a number of great Broadway musicals while residing there, but I realized I was leaving the city without seeing a play. So, one day, my wife and I drove down to a theater without much planning. We saw the Merchant of Yonkers. Larchmont was where we resided in Westchester County. Yonkers is in the same county and that might have drawn us in hindsight. All I remember of the play was that the merchant was a curmudgeon, who begrudged paying even 15 cents to his barber.

It was much later when we moved to San Diego did I found out that play was written by Thornton Wilder. The second version of the play, known as The Matchmaker, became a huge success, and led to the hilarious musical Hello Dolly. In the l980’s, we drove to Los Angeles to see it. The name Thornton Wilder was inscribed in my memory.

I heard the Wilder name again back in Tokyo when I joined a local reading circle of English literature. The circle initially started among the Tsuda Woman University graduates, but later invited the public to participate. Tokyo had changed a lot while I was away. There were no universities around when and where I lived before. Upon my return, I found more than a dozen universities moved out from downtown Tokyo to the western suburbs along with the faculty. I found my teacher from my alma mater lived close by across the Asakawa River. I could see Chuo University campus from my backyard. The closest university was Meisei University, the faculty of which included exchange professors from Mississippi State University. When the circle invited them as guests, we became friends, traveling together to see flowers, Noh plays, etc. One year several members visited a professor from Mississippi in the U.S. and I joined them. This professor was a graduate from Ole’Miss and she drove us to Rowan Oaks where William Faulkner resided.

Back to Wilder. The circle decided to read Our Town in the beginning of 2010. It was recommended by Dr. Caldwell, a professor at Meisei University, who also provided production guidance. The circle decided to put on a production as their 20th Anniversary project. I left Tokyo for Kitakyushu then and was unable to participate, but promised to come by.

I did my homework to know that Wilder created Glover’s Corners, a fictitious town in New Hampshire, just like Yoknapatawpha country in Mississippi by Faulkner. However, Our Town can be any town in the U.S. or any town worldwide.

Acts 1 through 3 of Our Town was performed beautifully in January 2011 after a full year of practice, in one of the small citizen center halls by the Asakawa River. Great thing about the play is that no stage setup is necessary. However, the problem was that there were very few men in the circle. They overcame the problem, casting women as men in disguise, including the stage manager. The performance was for club members and guests only. It was a shame it was not open to the public.

Dr. and Mrs. Caldwell were also invited from Chiang Mai, Thailand, the home they chose to retire in. Dr. Caldwell told us that Meisei University students once performed Our Town as a one act play, combining Act 2 (Love & Marriage) and Act 3 (Life & Death) and omitting Act l (Daily Life). I heard Dr. Caldwell complimenting the circle, telling them their version was better than Meisei’s.

Eighty percent of Wilder’s quotes come from Our Town, particularly from the ubiquitous Stage Manager’s fluffs. No wonder Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Late in Act I, the Stage Manager tells the audience that he will leave the script in the cornerstone of a new bank so that “a thousand years from now" people can see "the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” This struck a chord and motivated me to travel to Kobe to see another Wilder play performed.

While Googling Our Town, I found out the play was performed by elite Japanese actors earlier in the year in Tokyo. I also happened to come upon a Kobe Youth Group planning to produce Wilder’s A Happy Journey in English in April. I obtained the script and discovered to my delight that the journey was from Newark to Trenton and Camden, New Jersey. The locations were all familiar to me. I lived close by in the 1960’s and drove all over New Jersey on sales trips. Wilder chose a family of four - husband, wife and two children - visiting another married daughter in Camden who was sick. For such a trip today, traveling the New Jersey Turnpike isn’t a big deal. But, I see the excitement of the family excursion, from their conversation with the neighbors and stage manager. I see aspects of our children in the children in the play.

Arriving in Kobe earlier than the matinee hour, I had a chance to meet the producer, saw their rehearsals on stage and even had a chance to wish the young actors luck. The play was wonderful. You can safely say that I am immersed in Wilder's dramas.

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