Our Town opens, famously, on an empty stage. Addressing the audience directly, the Stage Manager sets the scene. It’s May 7, 1901, just before dawn: an ordinary day in the ordinary town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
As the town begins to stir, its daily rituals come to life. Dr. Gibbs, homeward bound, has just delivered twins. Joe Crowell is delivering newspapers. Howie Newsome is delivering milk. These ongoing, mundane marvels—the arrival of new life, knowledge and nourishment—help illustrate the play’s theme. Our Town, writes Wilder, “is an attempt to find a value above all price for
the smallest events in our daily life.” And so the Webb and Gibbs families go through their day, getting ready for school, dreaming of travel, gossiping about the town drunk. The act ends with a reminder that the most ordinary lives bear a clear link to the cosmos, whether they see it or not. Young Rebecca Gibbs describes the address on a letter to a friend: “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”
“And,” she delights, “the postman brought it just the same.”
Act II takes place three years later, just after high school commencement. This act also begins with the delivery of papers and milk—and with the news that the Gibbses’ son, George, and the Webbs’ daughter, Emily, are about to be married. As the parents reminisce about their own married lives, the Stage Manager interrupts to take the audience back to a moment in George and Emily’s courtship, to show how “big things like that begin.” He then moves forward in time to the wedding. Terrified and hopeful, Emily and George bind themselves to a pattern so many others have formed. “M . . . marries N . . . millions of them,” proclaims the Stage Manager. “Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”
Act III is set nine years later in the town cemetery. A funeral procession approaches, and Emily, dressed in white, steps out from the crowd. She has died in childbirth and comes to join the orderly rows of Grover’s Corners’ dead. But she is uneasy in her new state and longs to revisit the living, if only for a day. The dead try to dissuade her—“It’s not what you think it’d be”—but Emily insists. Told to relive an unimportant day, not a momentous one, she eagerly chooses her 12th birthday. Yet as she and her parents go through the motions of daily life, eating breakfast and opening gifts, she finds she can’t go on. “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me,” she pleads. But the living, unaware of the future, cannot truly see, and Emily asks the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave.
“That’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness,” Simon Stimson cries on her return. The others rebuke him and direct Emily’s gaze to the stars, each speck a
million years of light.
As George returns to the ceremony, grief-stricken, to throw himself on her grave, Emily realizes that the living understand as little of death as of life. The Stage Manager appears to send the audience home: “Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners—you get a good rest, too. Good night.”