Let’s talk about life. Actually, let’s talk about the transient nature of life, which happens to be Thorton Wilder’s favorite topic.
It also happens to be among the themes explored in a recent staging of three of his one-act plays at Ford’s Theatre.
As part of their continuing commemoration of the 75th anniversary of his legendary play “Our Town,” Ford’s Theatre teamed up with AU, Howard University and Georgetown University to stage three of Wilder’s works exploring not only life and death, but all that comes along in the journey of our lives.
With each university presenting a different work, Georgetown University opened with “Pullman Car Hiawatha” directed by Susan Lynskey. On a train traveling from New York to Chicago, the play follows a mentally ill woman, another about to die and many other intertwined lives from different towns and planets. Among the plays presented, this particular one marks the grandest meditation on humanity with Wilder widening his lens to cover not only characters but the cosmos. The heavy themes and wide range of characters made it harder to connect with the loaded and busy version presented.
Yet for all its ambition, the staging of the play is and always has been minimalistic. For this production and all the others, all there was on stage were minor functional props like chairs, while the rest is left up to pantomime and visualization. The earliest of the works presented that night, this play introduces the audience to some of Wilder’s trademarks like the stage manager/narrator along with simplistic staging.
These one-act plays also highlight the aesthetic and motifs that would come to define his greater full-length works. Their significance comes in part from the fact that in each of them Wilder’s gradual progression to “Our Town.”
While “Pullman Car Hiawatha” is an out-of-focus train journey through time, space and emotions, “The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” directed by Craig Wallace focuses in on a family’s road trip to visit a relative. Performed by Howard University, the play centers on the dynamics of family life within the Kirby clan. The family, Pa and Ma Kirby and their son and daughter are off to visit their eldest married daughter.
What is really great about this piece is the manner in which a variety of mundane topics that come up during the trip reveal the many joys life has to offer, whether grand or minute. Howard University’s performance does just that, hitting all the right notes and offering a natural and enjoyable rendition of the play.
AU ended the night with its rendition of “The Long Christmas Dinner” directed by Carl Menninger. The popular play follows the Bayard family through nine decades of Christmas dinners. Focusing on the journey of life, this work defies time by presenting the past, present and future all in one go; all at once everything and nothing is happening. Time is both transpiring as generations of this family come and go, while at the same time much remains the same, right down to thoughts uttered by family members.
The actors were captivating in their various roles, though the staging was mostly bare. The progression of time smoothly transitioned from one generation to the next, with the characters changing demeanor.
In all these works and the great work it would inspire, Wilder seems to be offering the same messages: appreciate the journey, appreciate your time, appreciate life. His portraiture of ordinary people and their development into extraordinary vessels of truth and virtue masterfully illustrates his continuing relevance and legacy.