Thornton Wilder in the Westhampton Beach High School Cafeteria
It was a mid-March Friday night in 1995. In beach towns, early spring is a strange time, full of expectation at the upcoming throngs of people, bursts of activity, and the openings of shuttered cabins and ice cream shops. The beach grass is still as sad shade of brown and the ocean holds it’s winter greyness. Light returns to the East End sky as a smoky pink dusk. For a few weeks, the quiet, closed world belongs to the locals and to their unsupervised teenagers in particular. The long shadows during the lingering afternoons build space and time for observation and expectation. It is time for shivering in wet wool pea coats on deserted ocean beaches, for French kissing in the threadbare front seats of his grandfathers’ parked brown Buick, and for lingering after tennis practice in hopes of one more look at your latest crush. It’s a magical time for the unexploded potential of local boys and girls. They wait here to grow up and live in places where life happens. The right ones know that this is when they will make the choices that make the difference between having been really quite something and growing up to be really quite somebody.
We went to a play. Everyone – the jocks, the cheerleaders, the loadies, the geeks, the wallflowers, the idiots, the punks, the nice girls, the date rapists, the merit scholars, the cheaters, the gossips, the invertebrates, and me.
The stiff back of the plastic chairs could only be made tolerable by sitting Indian-style on them. I pressed my sit-bones against the blue molded seat, saving the points of my shoulder blades from the same abuse. Even in that brown, windowless relic of 1960’s architecture, the curtain-closed stage beckoned with promise. Just for tonight. Life stopped as the curtain opened on Grover’s Corners. The awful day, the bullying, the misunderstandings, the foggy sadness all rode back on the curtain and slept silently like a small infant giving a new mother her only respite.
The Stage Manager stepped onto the stage permitting us a glimpse into a world at a deceptively simple time. The hooting wail of a semi-distant train whistle settled on the dust specks floating on the beams of light from the spots. Whizzes of spokes tempted my ears. A whoosh of air tickled the tiny hairs on my forearm as the paperboy’s bike rolled up the center aisle. I entered their world.
For me, Our Town always held more than the mere “magic of the theater.” It holds the magic of mystery. My mother told me my father played George. It was always hard for me to imagine him as an actor. Yet, the play itself, rich in dialogue, philosophical intensity and perfect minimalism embodies all I’ve ever imagined him to be.
People love the simplicity of the set, the tender and innocent window-to window courtship of George and Emily, the matter-of-fact ghosts. But me, I always watch for the Stage Manager to look right at me and tell me everything I’ve ever wanted to know about love, truth, and him.
This particular night, I picture what playing George must have been like for Daddy. Did he harbor a puppy-love crush on his Emily? Did his heart really crumple at her funeral, or was he just acting? Did he embrace the power of a bare stage? Was he a poet?
After intermission, Emily has died and taken her place among the ghosts in the graveyard. For her there isn’t heaven, just a quiet place under an old Oak tree.
She looks back at the Stage Manager. In that glance, it’s no longer about the actors, the lights or the sets. While words and glances floated above me in a high school cafeteria, the dialogue swallowed me.
I watched Emily call to her mother on her 10th birthday. No one even stopped to look at one another. The morning kept the pace of any day. Like all of our days, the love remained lost on everyone. I looked over the people I will have once known through blurry, wet eyes. None of them saw. They couldn’t. Not yet, maybe never.
Everyday, I walked the halls of the school, listened to the same records, avoided ridicule, holding back all of my existence, simply to survive. But, I was watching them, not living among them. The trap I’d fallen into was expertly constructed by my own artifice and fear. The plexi-glass wall and its visual distortions were visible only to me.
I sniffed back my tears, the moment too precious to miss. As we watched Emily float back to the cemetery, my sweaty-wet hands gripped under the seat slipping and sliding across it. Fiberglass tore at the pads of my fingers, but letting go meant sure destruction.
EMILY: Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”
STAGE MANAGER: No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.
Daddy realized life. It was something about his face – that silent, gentle face. It told me he felt, loved, and breathed it. The flame inside me fanned by memory, not of the mind, but rather, of the chromosome, burned my thighs, toes, and lungs. This hot, red light floating inside my chest was not my own. It lived, floated, and danced within and around me. Not even the eerie blue stage light cooled it. The girl next to me shifted in her seat, instinctively avoiding the uncomfortable intensity threatening to burst through the wall of my experience into hers.
For the first time, I watched the gift he left me. It played on, right above me, on the stage of a Long Island high school cafeteria. He left me the chance to see, to feel, to love, and to seek to be one of the ones, “who do some.” I reached up to my shoulder to hold the hand resting gently upon it. The empty seats behind me shrugged and looked away.