I was in the play in high school, so I guess thats why it came to my mind. Our Town, the 1938 play by Thornton Wilder, and Newtown, the Connecticut town that last month endured the deaths of 20 children, six school administrators, and the mother of the killer, have the same consonance, to use a literary term. They sound very much alike.
Its probably occurred in the last few weeks to many people who were never in the play that Newtown and Our Town sound alike and to some that Newtown appears to be, as Our Town is, an idyllic, New England village with a store, a church, houses for the mothers and fathers and children, a minister, a cemetery, and a misfit who wanders through the streets and the lives of the central characters.
The play is about eternity and youth and the loss of it. But for me the most important lines are about seeing, I guess, because its the message in the most important scene of my character, Mrs. Webb.
Its played with her dead daughter. Mrs. Webb has raised her and now shes dead and comes to her home and her mother, against the listless advice of her dead companions, staged in rows of chairs simulating a cemetery. Its a day, not of her daughters afterlife but of her mothers life. The two sit together on the porch, and Mrs. Webb speaks an offhand, wandering filter of the days activities, her list of things to do that day, her admonitions. She is deaf to her daughter, who pleads with her mother to see her, really see her, love her, be with her, to become exhilarated by the trusty clocks ticking.
Sally, her daughter, my daughter, was perfect for the part. Small, tow-headed, pretty, and fully blessed for her character, whose virginal innocence evolves into a withered spirit in the midst of her family and friends. Kristi was the other mother on the stage, the mother of the son who loved my daughter, who began to worship her during a scene of a starry night and crimson odors of dying flowers on the trees outside their bedrooms.
Kristi gave a startling good performance as the boys mother, Mrs
. well, Ill have to look up her stage name. You see, when youre in a play you are supposed to be connected to the other actors on the stage, but that kind of professionalism doesnt happen in a high school junior year play. We just werent that mature. Well, I wasnt, I guess, because although I can see myself on stage, I cant see anyone else. So I didnt learn the lesson I was speaking during my few seconds of stardom. That you have to see, to listen, to be with other people, to look at them, and live with them in those few seconds or moments or years that you have with them, because life flows away and then its memory.
For example, Kristis dead now. She died a year or so ago of an illness that she fought but couldnt overcome. Our class has an active listserv, thanks to a classmate who stayed in our Ohio town, to teach in the high school we had all graduated from. Lana keeps all of us there too, each of us, a tiny bit when she lets us know whats going on with our classmates. So we passed with Kristi into stage right, where the cemetery people sit in Our Town, and visited with her and then turned and left her there, where she was when the curtain came down on our play in 1966. She gave the epilogue that Wilder wrote as a summation. My daughters character goes back to the cemetery to sit next to her mother-in-law, Kristi, Mrs. Gibbs, and acknowledges that it was useless to go back to the living. They dont understand, do they? No, said Kristi, they dont.
This is the Christmas message too. To see, not observe, but see and look in places we wouldnt think would hold a gift. All the religions represented at the memorial service for the Newtown victims tell us to live the minute, live the hour. Live it intensely. Accept the gifts that may be lying in wait for us to find them. We are asked to see and be with our children, our parents, the sick, the dying, the lost, the poor.
We have been called, this Christmas season, by this horrible massacre. God give us strength to live and give grace to those who died in our town.Sarah Madry is a writer in Chapel Hill. She is currently working on her second book. Her first book, Well Worth a Shindy: The Architectural and Philosophical History of the Old Well, was published in 2004.
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