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Encores and Curtain Calls

Homage to a departing icon

Facing closure, Northampton Center for the Arts stages ‘Our Town’

“To all things there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot.”

— Ecclesiastes

On South Street in Northampton, atop the Sullivan Square building, there dwells an intimate space which, for the past 30 years, has served as the major community venue for regional productions and performances of many pedigrees.

A chameleon of a space that can morph from salon into chamber hall, from black box theater into dance studio, the Northampton Center for the Arts’ days are numbered. With the approaching end of its 30-year lease, the center has been searching for a new location for several years. During that time, there have been a number of promising possibilities, among them the First Churches, but none have yet proved workable. So, on
March 22, following the applause sure to follow Peter Blanchette’s fifth Bach Birthday Concert, the clatter of chairs being folded for the last time and the waning clicking of heels as the players depart, the region will bid a final farewell to this “sweet spot” of the arts.

Director Penny Burke, seeing the approaching end of her passionately — if sometimes anxiously — tended vision, has chosen and will personally produce the center’s final theatrical performance: Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” with a cast drawn from Northampton’s drama community and directed by Toby Bercovici.

The center’s production of “Our Town” will be staged Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 2, at 2:30 p.m.

It’s hard not to imagine that most of the art lovers of Pioneer Valley have not, at some time or other during the last 30 years, found themselves climbing the three flights of stairs leading to the center and attending one or more of its offerings.

It was, some 20 years ago, my own choice for the performance of a full-length song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble on poems and diary extracts of Emily Dickinson.

I was consoled by the intimacy of the center’s eagle’s nest setting, perched high above the hubbub of Northampton’s ceaselessly thronging Main Street, just a stone’s throw from the prow of the Smith College campus and perhaps two stone’s throws from the fabulous fortress of Forbes Library, just up the hill. It seemed a perfect metaphor for the art-life dichotomy that lies at the core of every working artist’s journey: living and laboring in the same workaday world as everyone else, replete with traffic tie-ups, wailing police sirens and speeding tickets, yet privately dwelling all that time in a totally other, interior space which, somehow, magically conferred the power and resilience to go on amidst the many “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that seem regularly to beset the career artist. Here, whatever the world might bring by way of its seemingly ceaseless assaults — sonic, visual, physical or metaphysical — was a safe place, an emporium of the human spirit, set apart from the worldly fray.

At least, so it has always felt to me.

Burke confesses the idea to stage “Our Town” occurred to her over a year ago, whereupon she spontaneously shared it with Bercovici — according to the latter, over a drink at a local watering hole. Bercovici immediately offered to direct it, despite the fact that she was virtually unaware of the play and its premiere position in American culture since it was first staged in 1937.

The quiet, simple-toned drama, a seemingly innocuous unfolding of the life of Anytown, USA, went on to garner the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938. Its apparent simplicity, patiently displayed and gently layered, eventually succeeds, in its homespun way, in snowballing into a quiet spiritual avalanche, carrying us to the very threshold of poignant agony.

What then, is the the link between the looming farewell of a much-cherished haven for the arts and an iconic American chronicle of barely-noticed “little things”?

Perhaps this fascinating excerpt from the afterword of “Our Town” may begin to answer this query:

“The debut was a single performance at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., on Jan. 22, 1938. The play drew a ferociously negative review in “Variety” ( “It will probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent), but others saw it the way Wilder did when he wrote “The performance was an undoubted success. The large theater was sold out with standees ... audience swept by laughter often; astonishment; and lots of tears; long applause at the end from an audience that did not move from its seats.”

Why, one wonders, this silenced, becalmed room full of humans? What was so riveting?

Well, Wilder’s genius, humble as it may have seemed, had, with brilliant accuracy, struck a nerve. And not just a nerve — but the overriding existential nerve of human existence, the strange trance in which most of us live and move, in which we somehow manage to succeed in ignoring our own looming mortality, our own absolute, irreversible exit from the stage of life.

A young newlywed finds herself, inexplicably, dying in childbirth at the very outset of her dreams of a life and awakening, in stunned incomprehension, to the limbo of the departed souls in a little town cemetery somewhere near Peterborough and Jaffrey, N.H., but, of course, Everywhere.

Too late, she finds her sense of the preciousness of life, of all things, dawning with terrible hindsight.

Here’s Wilder at his best, giving us the young Emily in a one-chance-only return to her earthly home, to watch the miracle of her mother, father and brother lovingly greeting her on her 12th birthday.

(Editor’s note: Spoiler alert, if you don’t know this play, you might want to skip this part)

Mr. Webb (Emily’s father) offstage: “Where’s my girl? Where’s my birthday girl?”

Emily (in a loud voice to the stage manager): “I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She breaks down sobbing.

The lights dim on the left half of the stage. Mrs. Webb disappears.

“I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we didn’t notice. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

“Good-bye. Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners ... Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking ... and Mama’s sunflowers. And food, and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

She looks toward the Stage Manager and asks abruptly through her tears: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?

Stage Manager: “No.” Pause. “The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”

“Now,” Wilder’s still-palpable spirit seems to be urging us, “it’s your turn to awaken!”

(Editor’s note: End spoiler alert)

What then, is the link between the looming farewell of a much-cherished haven for the arts and an iconic American chronicle of barely-noticed “little things”?

Says Burke, “Even though we’ve been there eight years, this is the first and last time we’re producing our own play, just to mark the occasion — to bring the community together, hopefully in a positive way and to share in this space. Let’s face it, (laughing) ‘Our Town’ is a winner! It’s one of my personal favorites for a variety of reasons. One, because the first time I saw it, I was 10 or 11 years old and got taken to someone’s high school production — and I was taken by that. Then, we did it in my own high school, although I was not majorly involved in that. And then, my degree is in dramatic literature and criticism and I studied with a woman who was an expert in American drama. So, this play, at a certain point, ended up being well-read and dissected.”

The center is located at 17 New South St., Suite 303, Northampton, 413-584-7327. Tickets for “Our Town” are $15 general admission and $10 for students and seniors. Advance reservations and more information are available at
www.nohoarts .org .

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at
josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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