13 December 2013
10 Tevet 5774
Last night in a packed house in our Bernice Krupp Black Box Theater, I was once again inspired by the talent, passion, depth, and sophistication of our students. Our Drama Club’s fall production was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and I want to thank both our extraordinary director and educator, Jason Slavick, and one of the lead actors, Mitali Desai ’15, for shedding light on some of the deeper spiritual and philosophical meanings of the play and how it connects to our Jewish tradition.
Just to review, the first act of the play, called “The Daily Life,” introduces two families and next door neighbors in a small New Hampshire town at the start of the 20th century. In the second act, the teenage boy and girl from each family fall in love and get married. In the third act, the young woman tragically dies in childbirth. She is able to reenter her human life as an observer, only to realize the sad reality that human beings move about their daily business without appreciating the beauty and significance of everyday life.
In Mitali’s words, “the play is sad but in a way that is really beautiful.” It’s beautiful because the young woman and the audience come to see so clearly the meaning in the everyday: the sun, the birds, the seasons, the simple pleasures. As Jason and I discussed, in the first act of the show, nothing happens. But that’s just it…nothing happens, and, yet, everything happens.
The character of the stage manager (the show is written as a play within a play) functions as the narrator and humanizes and personalizes the passing of time. “It has been three years . . . the sun has come up over 1,000 times . . . young people have fallen in love . . .” At another point, one of the characters describes with increasingly enthusiastic, child-like wonder a piece of mail that was strangely addressed. The address included house number and street, town, and state, as usual, but also country, continent, earth, universe, the mind of God! “And the mailman delivered it!” she exclaims. In one moment, the play zooms out to the cosmos and then right back in to the simple pleasures of daily life. It teaches us that, as Jason writes in the Director’s Note, “the cosmic permeates every facet of existence”, and we can see “the eternal in every tiny gesture and moment.”
Of course, what is so special about theater, especially for high school students, is the transformative power of entering into the world of the play and the lives of its characters. Mitali reflected on this with me: “There’s so much in the play and about life in general that you can miss if you don’t pay attention. (Being in this play) made me look at my own life – my joys and my sorrows. Even over these past few weeks, doing the play can be so intense and stressful, and I can get so swept up in just what’s coming next, and this play made me look more closely at the wonderful things in my life. Like, for example, eating breakfast.”
Our Town reminds us that to be fully human is to experience what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “wonder” and “radical amazement” even or, perhaps, especially, in what seem to be the mundane details of the everyday. Sadly, the play claims, most of us do not normally see or appreciate like this, save for the “saints and poets.”
Our Jewish tradition understands this reality of human nature, as well. Yet, it seeks to cultivate the spiritual disposition of Wilder’s saints and poets in each of us. We say blessings of gratitude over food, at the sight of a rainbow, even after we go to the bathroom (isn’t it extraordinary when our body works the way it is supposed to!). We start each morning with “modeh ani – I am grateful (for another day),” however uneventful that day may seem, and, in the second to last paragraph of the Amidah, the core of the Jewish prayer service, we acknowledge “nisecha she’b’chol yom imanu v’al niflaotecha . . . – the miracles and wonders that are with us each day and at all times.”
Life is short and moves quickly. While hindsight can be 20-20, we can so often miss the beauty and grandeur of the moment if we don’t pay close enough attention. Thanks to this beautiful production, I am feeling a little more poetic and seeing a little more clearly.
Rabbi Marc Baker