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Performing “Our Town” In Oman

This spring in the Sultanate of Oman, a historic moment took place — a cast of expats and Omanis staged the first performance of Thornton Wilder’s American classic Our Town in the Gulf. While directing this intrepid cast of mostly university students and teachers and performing the role of Emily Webb, I was forced to contemplate the relevance today of the play’s timeless themes and the significance of performing this American masterpiece on the Arabian Peninsula.

Playwright Edward Albee described Our Town, set in a fictional New Hampshire town in the 1900s, as “the greatest American play ever written.”

The plot is a simple one: Teenagers Emily Webb and George Gibbs fall in love, get married, and then Emily dies in childbirth. From the great beyond, she chooses to relive her 12th birthday and is horrified to discover how much the living take for granted. While on its surface the play appears to be a nostalgic reverie for a simpler time, it is, at its core, a stinging critique of human ignorance — the limits of human understanding, gratitude, and interpersonal connection.

Due to the radical structure of the play, its first performance in 1938 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey received scathing reviews. The play soon moved on to great success in Boston and on Broadway. It eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and revolutionized American theatre. In the words of my mentor, the playwright Paula Vogel, “all roads lead back to Thornton Wilder.”

In Oman, our actors hailed from towns around the globe — the Sultanate of Oman, the United States, Somalia, India, Great Britain, Holland, Ukraine, and beyond. To represent this diversity, I posted color photographs of “our towns” on the walls of the performance space like postcards to evoke our far-flung origins — from the desert dunes of the Sultanate to the bombed-out buildings of Donetsk — as we worked to bring this masterpiece to life in Muscat.

Such a multinational cast seemed appropriate for a play that scholars recognize as a creative fusion of east and west. Wilder was influenced by Chinese opera. He spent his younger years living in China as the son of a U.S. ambassador, and he later became inspired by the pantomime of Beijing Opera master Mei Lanfang, whom he saw perform in New York in 1930 (as did Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht, and Clifford Odets). Wilder explicitly described Our Town as “utilizing the technique of Chinese drama” in its bare stage design, use of pantomime, flexibility of time and space, disregard for the fourth wall, and sweeping themes. We noted the play’s hybrid roots as we rehearsed the play in the shifting sands of the Gulf region.

Image by Emily Jane O'Dell, © All Rights Reserved.

Our performance was a historic first on many counts. It was, to my knowledge, the first performance of Our Town in Oman, the Gulf, and perhaps the Middle East. Straight plays are rarely, if ever, presented in Oman or the Gulf in general (save for the occasional British Council Shakespeare production). Omani women almost never perform in public for religious and cultural reasons, so we had to tread carefully. Yet several brave and talented young Omani women (students of mine) agreed to join the cast, and to my delight they said that the experience was the highlight of their educational careers.

For many of the Omani students, it was the first time that they had ever seen a live theatrical production. Early 20th-century New Hampshire, it turns out, maps well onto life in 21st-century Oman. Back then, American women covered from the neck to ankle, and the play is free of any untoward language or explicit declarations of love. To remain culturally appropriate, the female Omani actors wore their black abayas and hijabs for the performance. As the director, I had to take special precautions — not to place the female students too close to the male performers or have female students featured in photos that might later circulate online.

To maintain their privacy and honor, many Omani women keep themselves as invisible as possible in public spaces. For their profile photos on social media, they usually post a flower or landscape, and their male family members often do not put their real names in their cellular contact lists. One Omani student performer in Our Town told me that she loves wearing niqab, the full-face veil, when she is back in her small hometown, because just like Grover’s Corners everyone knows everybody’s business there, and the niqab gives her the freedom of anonymity to prevent gossip and blame. In a society where invisibility defines a woman’s honor and reputation, to dare to assume space and even step center-stage is a bold act.

Having Grover’s Corners’ townsfolk don hijabs produced wonderful and unexpected dramatic results. At a time when Islamophobia is rising in the United States and refugees feel unwelcome, it was powerful to have our “typical” New Hampshire town populated by Muslims from the Middle East. One young woman in a hijab received a knowing chuckle from the audience when she stood up in the audience and asked: “Is there much drinking in Grover’s Corners?” Another Omani actress planted in the audience asked Mr. Webb, the editor of the local newspaper: “Is there no one in town aware of social injustice and industrial inequality?” Dissatisfied with his defensive answer about everyone in the town of course knowing about the great divide between “who’s rich and who’s poor,” she replied in character, “Then why don’t they do something about it?” All of us, from different towns around the globe, could relate to that biting barb on inequality written almost 90 years ago.

From the first day of rehearsal, we referred to one another by our characters’ names and formed into groups with our “family members” from the play. In a society where identity and relationships are rigidly fixed from birth, I could see my students’ delight in watching adults “play” and assume the lives and relationships of characters from a bygone time. Student/teacher, Muslim/Christian, man/woman, young/old, local/foreign — all of those distinctions fell away as we re-created the fictional world of Grover’s Corners in the Sultanate of Oman.

Image by Emily Jane O'Dell, © All Rights Reserved.

It wasn’t hard for any of us to step into this early 20th-century American playworld, as it’s filled with archetypes we all could recognize — whether our roots were from India or Iraq, Ukraine or Somalia. The town drunk that everyone gossips about but no one will help until it’s too late. A young man who gets ahead on connections and charm. A young woman who sacrifices her dreams to become a doting, pregnant wife. Middle-aged wives tricking husbands into vacations to get away from monotonous housework. The town gossip who finds in the triumphs and failures of each character the beauty and horror of being alive. The tragic suicide of a troubled artist unable to conform to suffocating social norms. The staid rituals of small-town life.

Still unsure if the play’s themes would translate to an Omani audience, I invited a few Omani students to our final rehearsal. Afterwards, one of them said: “I was crying — this play is just like our towns here in Oman, and it made me realize I’ve been living my whole life wrong! Now I have to reconsider my whole future!” We were on the right track.

Such a strong emotional reaction to a work of art is unusual in Oman; Omanis are known for their impressive emotional control. Though expats, especially Americans, often struggle to avoid drawing on the full range of their colorful emotional palettes, many expats come to appreciate the chance to practice more self-control. Nevertheless, my Omani actors seized the opportunity to express a full range of emotions in the play not usually shared in public in Oman — particularly by women.

“Professor,” one of my female acting students said while rehearsing, “it’s amazing because the audience thinks it’s my character’s emotion, but it’s really mine!” They took full advantage of the rare opportunity to become someone else, to feel something new, through the guise of Grover’s Corners. Their impressive acting chops offered their fellow performers and members of the audience the chance to see them — and by extension Omani women — in a new way.

Image by Emily Jane O'Dell, © All Rights Reserved.

Through my Omani students’ fresh eyes, I fell in love all over again with the power of theatre to create an alternative world where we may try on new personas, experiment with emotions, and cultivate new relationships and community bonds. Performing Our Town in Oman gave us a chance to create our own intentional community, our own little “town,” in spite of the global gales threatening to pull us apart for our differences.

Shakespeare said “all the world’s a stage,” but so too is each a stage a world. One castmate from Ukraine, who cannot return to her town because it has been bombed to ruins, observed:

“In doing Our Town, I felt I was a part of the world ‘drama community,’ which is a great feeling because I have never, ever considered myself a performer or an actor… Performing Our Town in Oman showed how acting, drama, and world literature can transcend the boundaries between cultures and religions.”

Performing Our Town in Oman gave me an opportunity to share an American artistic treasure — a play which itself critiques American history and culture — at a time when the United States has become berated abroad for its hubris, endless wars, and narcissistic new frontman. The play itself does not shy away from the roots of America’s bloody imperial reach and intolerance today. As the character Professor Williard says in the play regarding Grover’s Corner’s anthropological data: “Early Amerindian stock. Cotahatchee tribes…hmm…now entirely disappeared.” And how could we not think of Mexicans and refugees when the Stage Manager said: “Polish Town’s across the tracks.”

How little, we realized, had changed in the 79 years since the play debuted. It came as little surprise that the character of Mrs. Gibbs got an ironic, rousing laugh from the audience when she said: “It seems to me that once in your life, before you die, you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.”

After the curtain call, my phone lit up all night with messages from Omani students from the cast and audience as they continued to digest the play and this strange “new thing,” as one of them called theatre. The play, they said, had emotionally shaken them, and made them reflect upon their own scripted futures. As Wilder noted in a letter to Gertrude Stein in 1937, Our Town is a “little play with all the big subjects in it: And it’s a big play with all the little things of life lovingly impressed into it.”

The existential import of the play was not lost on our audience. One female Omani student told me that night: “This play has definitely changed something inside of me. I will try to remember it each time I complain about life. This play how also made me see how powerful literature can be! You know, I feel sorry for those people who haven’t tasted the power of literature. They have missed so much.”

Image by Emily Jane O'Dell, © All Rights Reserved.

Most Americans do not know that this American literary classic was itself conceived​ abroad. As a theatre artist and archaeologist, I’ve long loved the fact that Wilder was inspired to write Our Town while excavating an underground tomb in Rome. It was in those Mediterranean trenches that he realized the poignancy of how the living and dead, past and present, coexist side by side. Though I had come face-to-face with many mummies while excavating at the Great Pyramids in Egypt, it wasn’t until I delivered Emily Webb’s famous lines at the end of the play (as she departs the world of the living) that I really stared my own death in the face: “Goodbye, world. Goodbye, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa.” Goodbye, our towns. Goodbye, us. All of us.

At a time when communal bonds are fraying and individualism and greed seem to run rampant, it is easy to agree with Mrs. Webb’s observation that “The whole world’s wrong, that’s what’s the matter.” The words of the deceased town drunk Simon Stimson also ring true: “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those… of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another.” But the play also urges us to look beyond the daily dramas of human life to the mysterious nature of the stars and the incomprehensible reach of cosmic time. “Oh, earth,” as Emily says in the final scene, “you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

In the end, I think we were all a little surprised that we pulled off the performance. Grover’s Corners came to life in the Gulf — with Arab, Ukrainian, Indian, British, Dutch, and American accents. We, the expats in the cast, know that Muscat will not be “our town” for much longer — it’s just a passing stop on the way. A brief interlude for adventurous lives that stretch across the world. I’ll be shipping out myself later this year. In this increasingly shrinking global village, Our Town inspired us to contemplate — how do we relate to our neighbors, both local and global? Who belongs? Who is excluded? How can we individually and collectively flip the script to forge creative new connections across borders and divisions to make the world anew?

Some consider Our Town the perfect play — in its daring structure, honest simplicity, and extended meditation on the ungraspable beauty and transience of life. As Wilder noted, “Our Town is not… a picture of life in a New Hampshire village.” On the contrary, he said, it is “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” Performing Our Town in Oman reminded me that there is value above all price for putting aside differences to commune and create. Before she returns to her grave, Emily delivers one last question to the omnipotent Stage Manager: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” Saints and poets do, of course, he explains, but for the rest of us, life is more slippery, sloppy, and scattered. Performing Our Town in Oman was a potent reminder that through art, specifically drama, we can momentarily acknowledge and transcend the global chaos and consciously realize the beauty and potential of this sublime​, spinning ​earth — our town. All of us.

Image by Robert O'Dell, © All Rights Reserved.

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