My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate — that's my philosophy," says Sabina, the sexy, scene-stealing maid in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, his apocalyptic triptych about a loving but deeply dysfunctional family that constantly invents, destroys, and rebuilds the whole world. That's not only the character talking, though. It's also Wilder — the arch-modernist from a family so gifted his biography might be mistaken for a Wes Anderson screenplay — talking directly to his audience, extolling them to shake off their worry and live in the present tense.
Wilder had a literary sweet tooth and liked to use ice cream as a metaphor for those rare, ephemeral moments when humans are able to exchange their fear and confusion for love and clarity. Ice cream sodas are at the heart of Our Town, his most famous play. It's a pair of ice cream sodas that help George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the young lovers from Grover's Corners, to realize they are having an "important conversation." That scene, between a baby-faced Kinon Keplinger and Emily F. Chateau, as George and Emily, is the syrup-soaked cherry on Theatre Memphis' too-somber but no less satisfying production of Wilder's masterpiece.
Director Kell Christie has described Our Town as her favorite American play. That helps to explain a painstakingly reverent treatment of the material that dampens the humor in some of the show's lighter moments. But Christie and her cast bring a winning sincerity to Wilder's words that keeps things moving from one familiar scene to the next.
Theatre Memphis regulars Barclay Roberts and Chris Hart are especially engaging as Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Webb, the play's addled but well-meaning father figures. Bennett Wood, who recently directed Roberts in the frothy Moonlight & Magnolias, is especially comforting as the Stage Manager. He's a composed presence who carefully describes the town and everything that happens in the most unadorned and soothing tones possible. Anne Marie Caskey and Bonnie Kourvelas never stop moving as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb. They even snap invisible beans every time they sit down to chat. Their detailed mimes are a reminder that adult life is a perpetual state of business with little time for reflection.
In keeping with tradition, Grover's Corners is presented as a bare stage broken up with a few chairs and ladders. The townsfolk are depicted as actors in a play that is always in rehearsal. It's the clever playwright's cleverest trick, ensuring that his words would always be spoken in the present. It can never become stuck in 1937, the year the play was written, or be completely defined by the pre-Depression period between 1901 and 1913 in which the story is set. With this device, Wilder hitched his play to eternity.
In life and death, the citizens of Grover's Corners — Our Town — remind us that our time on earth is too short and too confusing to get hung up on fairy stories about the "good old days" when things were simpler and better. Because those days— like Grover's Corners itself — never really existed anywhere outside our imaginations. The place this show occupies in our cultural consciousness suggests that's a message we can't hear too often. Enjoy this big bowl of theatrical ice cream before it melts away on May 24th.