Queer Town: 'O, Earth' Updates Thornton Wilder for the 21st Century
O, Earth: Grover’s Corners, 2016 version
In the most moving scene of Casey Llewellyn's O, Earth — a fond, shaggy updating of Thornton Wilder's Our Town directed by Dustin Wills for the Foundry Theatre — Wilder himself appears onstage. He speculates, ruefully, that perhaps he was attracted to the broadest questions — life and death, the movement of the universe — because there was too much he couldn't say about the humbler realities of love and desire as he knew them.
This is a simplification, but it's a poignant one. Most biographers agree that Wilder was gay, but he was also notoriously private. The closest he ever came to disclosing the painful part of his hidden life may have been with Our Town's tormented choirmaster, Simon Stimson. In O, Earth, Wilder momentarily steps into the role of Stimson himself, entreating Emily to leave Grover's Corners and see the world.
Llewellyn's play begins with Wilder unearthing the time capsule that gets buried in Our Town — his own plays and novels are inside — but what he's really opening is the closet door, for himself and for America, unleashing the radical transformations of recent decades.
We're all (including Wilder) victims of our times, O, Earth reminds us. Our horizons are delineated by what is imaginable in the era we inhabit. Summoning the people who fought to widen those horizons, Llewellyn crowds the stage with icons from decades of queer history — everyone left out of Grover's Corners, from TV icons to heroes of the Stonewall uprising. (The play ponders the amazing fact that today's queer children will see Ellen DeGeneres on TV and take marriage rights for granted.)
O, Earth follows the basic plan of Wilder's play, including George and Emily's after-school courtship (though today's George is transsexual and Emily is questioning, a wanderer who ends up embracing Portia de Rossi in the latter's kitchen); marriage (a splashy Ellen segment on a gay destination wedding); and the graveyard. Throughout, Llewellyn questions the politics of visibility. Whose bodies, histories, and identities do we notice, and which are shunted aside? She finds an apt visual metaphor in Our Town's famously pantomimed settings and props, creating a recurring gag in which Wilder's characters abandon simulated objects for the real articles. There's a political point behind this satire: Material realities matter. For something or someone to be acknowledged, they first must be seeable, and seen.
Llewellyn places the state of liberation politics today against the constraints of Wilder's era. Sure, we have gay marriages, but trans people are still pushed out of sight. (There's an unspoken debt to Tony Kushner in the play's dialogue with ghosts, its insistence that the great work must continue.) Here, the graveyard scene — mournful and joyful — becomes a lyrical dance number, spirits from the past boogying down with figures from the present.
O, Earth is baggy, more like an exuberant first draft than a finished work. At times, it seems as if every one of America's marginalized groups must make a cameo, and the play's urgent declamations of feeling can be mawkish and banal. But O, Earth is also generous, ambitious, and fundamentally humane. The superabundance of expression redresses historical silence; the crowded stage answers effacement and repression. When ghosts from a harsher past plead that we must learn to love each other better, who can argue with that?
By Casey Llewellyn
145 Sixth Avenue
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