Thornton Wilder

Wilder Things

Even though the playwright, teacher, lecturer, screenwriter, opera librettist and novelist Thornton Wilder (pictured above) was born in Wisconsin in 1897 and lived for a time in China and California, perhaps Hamden above all can claim to have been his home. He lived with his sister Isabel, who was his executive secretary, from 1929 until his death in 1975 at 50 Deepwood Drive. He’s buried in an unassuming family plot, under the watchful eye of Sleeping Giant Mountain, in Mt. Carmel Cemetery.

Hamden’s Miller Library houses the Thornton Wilder Study Room, which contains artifacts from Wilder’s personal study. Within the larger Miller Cultural Center building, of which the library is a part, there’s the Thornton Wilder Auditorium. The library holds an annual Thornton Wilder Writing Competition inviting the state’s public, private and parochial high school students to submit one-act plays, short stories, essays, poems and television scripts.

Wilder was an ardent letter-writer, and a prolific one. (He probably would have detested texting and tweeting.) Many of his 7,000 letters have been published in multiple volumes after his death and his papers are housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

His most important works were published in their own right, and his most famous work is likely the Pulitzer-winning play Our Town. 75 years after its debut, it’s said that not a day goes by when the show isn’t performed somewhere in the world. Set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the play shows us the Gibbs and Webb families as they go about their lives at the turn of the twentieth century.

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It’s a classic American tale of small town existence and simple folk that resonates to this day, including with Steve Scarpa, an actor and director in the New Haven Theater Company, who hangs his hat at Long Wharf Theatre as its director of marketing and communications. Scarpa is directing the NHTC’s production of Our Town scheduled to stage next Thursday through Saturday, September 19-21, and the following, September 26-28, at 8 p.m. in the English Building Market in New Haven.

In the story, Mrs. Gibbs nurtures a pie-in-the-sky dream of visiting Paris. Joe Crowell uses his arthritic knees to predict the weather. Young George Gibbs tries to woo sweet Emily Webb over a strawberry ice cream soda. A character called “Stage Manager,” the play’s narrator, helps weave things together.

For the New Haven Theater Company’s upcoming show, Megan Chenot will provide a female take on that traditionally male role. Paul Newman performed his final acting gig as Our Town’s Stage Manager, first at Westport Country Playhouse and later on Broadway. Wilder himself played this role for several weeks on Broadway and later in summer stock.

Chenot says Paul Newman is her model for the narrator role, which she says makes it “a little intimidating.” The part typically calls for a father or grandfather figure, but she plays it like a “sister and a best friend,” which seems like it should translate well. Still, she calls it a “great challenge.”

Scarpa calls the play “tremendously moving and somewhat sentimental,” exploring “what it means to be alive, asking big questions. It’s a serious drama filled with humor and insights, a piece that has stood the test of time, with really different things to say to different generations.” The cast includes Rick Beebe, Megan Chenot, Peter Chenot, Donna Glen, Eric Greene, George Kulp, Josie Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol, Mallory Pellegrino, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, Sam Taubl and Jesse Jo Toth. Among them are three pairs of husbands and wives and one daughter, which should help give it that cohesive, small-town feel.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production isn’t the only way to get a taste of Wilder this month in Connecticut. In 1939, just after finishing Town, the playwright penned The Merchant of Yonkers (adapted from Einen Jux will er sich machen, an 1842 work by Austrian Johann Nestroy). Wilder took another pass at Yonkers in 1954 and re-dubbed it The Matchmaker. That, in turn, was adapted into the popular musical Hello, Dolly!, which is playing at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam until tomorrow, September 14. Act fast if you want to catch it.

Go on. Heed the call of the Wilder.

Written by Bonnie Goldberg.

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