“Our Town” at Northern Stage.

I’d never seen Our Town before. I’d read it of course.   Thornton Wilder’s best-known play has been a staple in high school English classes ever since its debut back in 1938, and for good reason. But reading it is nothing, seeing it is everything. There’s no scenery and not much in the way of costumes. It’s not that kind of play. But in the third act, watch out. When it’s done right, you’ll be thinking about what you saw for weeks, or maybe even a lifetime.

And it was done right at Northern Stage in White River Jct., Vt. in a run that just ended on Saturday. Carol Dunne, the artistic director, knows how to cast, and knows how to get the best performances from her actors. There wasn’t a weak part in the ensemble, even among the children who populate Grovers Corners. John Hutton as the stage manager was terrific, with a voice any performer would envy, and a presence that was at once commanding, but serene in his omniscience. Sutton Crawford in the role of Emily had the audience in the palm of her hand with exactly the right combination of innocence and maturity. We loved Emily from the beginning and when she’s up in her room, gazing at the moon—what an extraordinarily beautiful thing to witness!

But the image that haunts us, that slices through us right to the depths of our being, is the end of Act III, with those dead souls in the graveyard, waiting, waiting… They know what we don’t. They stare straight ahead, speaking laconically, without moving in the dim light. They are in touch with the stars, with eternity, with the Divine, while the grieving husband collapses sobbing on the grave of his wife. No words can describe what the stage brings to a scene like that. It’s the power of live theatre, the Sacrament of the Arts, and Wilder understood it better than most.

Our Town may be the best American play ever written.   It’ll be around forever. Let’s hope Northern Stage in its brand-new theatre will be, too.  If you’re in New England, check them out!

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The Divine Nature of Special Friends

On her radio show on April 27, Diane Rehm interviewed actress Kate Mulgrew (Startrek Voyager, Orange is the New Black), delving into her autobiography with enthusiasm and obvious admiration. One especially striking moment in the interview came when Diane brought up Kate’s special friend. They met at the NYU mess hall, bonded immediately, and were there for each other through every event in their lives, good and bad. “Best friend” does not even begin to cover the role this woman has played in Kate’s life. She is her “touchstone,” the love or her life, and tears come to her eyes just thinking about her. Diane then goes on to tell us that she understands completely, because she also had a friend like that, a woman who  unfortunately died last year.

This amazing kind of friendship is a central part of our humanity, what I call in my book, the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. There are special people out there in the universe waiting to connect with each of us. Montaigne describes his relationship with La Boetie in this way, David and Jonathan were “knit” to each other, Thornton Wilder suggested there was a “constellation” of special friends waiting to form around each of us and played with the idea that there were “slots” waiting to be filled, almost like the valences of an atom: 3 people younger than us, 3 people of the same age, 3 older.

These kinds of friends are gifts of the gods. We want them to be part of the good times in our lives, but even more importantly, we need them to support us when we’re down. The comfort they offer is extraordinary, in fact, it is akin to the comfort Christians feel when they really turn to Jesus. One of my students described how at one point her life fell apart, she couldn’t take it anymore, so she gave up trying and “turned it over” to Jesus: “You take it, Lord, you take the burden—I can’t do it anymore.” And if you really believe, He does take it.   You’re free. It’s like an enormous weight being lifted from you, you can work again, you can eat again, you can live again. If the pain returns, you remind yourself that Jesus is there to get you through it, that He has shifted this heavy load onto His own back, and you are not alone anymore. That’s the divine gift that a true friend can offer as well.

Whatever your views on Jesus, one thing is certain: friendship is a blessing, and a deep friendship, whether it happens in a blinding flash the first time you meet or develops over months and years, it is indeed a sacred bond, equally as sacred as the bond of matrimony.   Your friends are a part of your being at all times. You are aware of them always, even though long periods of time may go by where you don’t see them, even though death may separate you, you can still find them in your heart, they live on with you, and the comfort they offered remains to console you still.   I might go out on a limb here and say it’s not so much the friend, it’s the friendship. The friend is the agent whereby we recognize Friendship, the face of the Divine, the Spirit we must embrace in order to embrace our humanity to the fullest degree possible.