In my research about Thornton Wilder and the history of Our Town in preparation for the 75th Anniversary celebration, I stumbled upon what I would call a “gem.” Buried beneath the monstrous amount of information circulating on the internet, is the story of one man – a soldier – whose life was changed by a chance experience he had in Caserta, Italy in 1944.
Jim Bob Stephenson of Interlochen, Michigan has dedicated his life to theater as an actor, a director, and a teacher. Jim Bob passed away earlier this year at 91 years-old; leaving behind a legacy that includes six children, a lifetime in the theater, and, subsequently, a plethora of anecdotes chronicling his many adventures.
One of his many stories recounts his time at the Allied Force Headquarters outside of Naples, Italy during the second World War. Among Jim Bob’s colleagues on the base was none other than Lieutenant Colonel Thornton Wilder. When Stephenson discovered who he was keeping company with, he suggested to the president of the production company on the base that they ask Wilder to direct a production of Our Town for the troops.
And he agreed.
Wilder would later recall that he directed “a group of soldiers with very little theatre and professional experience and some WACs,” but that he enjoyed “being able to ask them to tell [him] the stories of their lives.”
The production was also chronicled a year later, in 1945, by Sargeant John Hobart who wrote a piece titled, “Grover’s Corners, Italy” for Theatre Arts Magazine in April 1945. Hobart said, “For exiled Americans overseas, Our Town inevitably stirred thoughts of home, and it also summoned a feeling of deep and honest pride. Grover’s Corners has never before seemed so wonderful a town or held so tangible a meaning.”
While Stephenson’s story has not been as widely circulated, it similarly depicts the comfort that this small town story brought to men far from home.
Thank you, Jim Bob, for your dedication to theater. For your time spent defending our country. And for this story.
This story actually begins when I was in a French class at the University High School (grades 7-12) in Ann Arbor. Our teacher, Miss Cordelia Hayes, had lived in Paris for many years and so taught us elegant French. I lapped it up!
Drama Season brought to Ann Arbor the stars of the New York production of French Without Tears. It had a couple of scenes in it that took place in the classroom of a French lycée (high school). The Ann Arbor director, Valentine Windt, asked Miss Hayes if he could use one of her French classes for these scenes; so our whole class played (in French) in the production.
Fast-forward about ten years to 1944. The Allied Force Headquarters in Caserta, Italy, had a theatre club. I read in the Stars and Stripes that their forthcoming production was French Without Tears. After such a long time I HAD to see it, which I did. The production was on a very high professional level, with a mixed cast made up of English, French and American service people attached to AFHQ – all unknown to me, of course, BUT among the names of the artistic advisors for the group was name I DID know: Thornton Wilder!
I went to the president of the group and asked him why we did not do Our Town and ask Col Wilder to direct? He tried to dampen my enthusiasm by saying that Wilder would never consent. I pleaded with him. “Let’s try anyway…”
I made an appointment with Wilder, whose office was in the posh headquarters building – which had been the Royal Palace of Carlo V and more recently, administrative offices of Mussolini’s. Of course it had its own Opera House – which is where I had just seen French Without Tears. Col. Wilder was very gracious to me (who was scared to death!) but said he did not want to “thrust myself before the public.”
I thought this was an odd position to take after the fame of the play under discussion and after The Skin of Our Teeth had recently been so acclaimed and was as world famous as Our Town. Nor, he said, would we get any women.
Notice that he did not really say No, so again I said, “Let’s try…”
With a mild show of reluctance he agreed.
So I put up notices all over AFHQ calling for tryouts, then a second announcement a few days later designating the time and place which was to be the basement of the Opera House. Wilder furnished me with several “photostatic copies” of the published version of the script to use for the tryouts.
To my thrilled astonishment the place was packed. There must have been about 75 to 100 uniformed people gathered. I greeted them warmly and reminded them about the traditions of production of this particular play – no scenery, imaginary props, fluidity of time sequences; the universality of its premise: “live life while you live it, every, every minute,” as Emily says.
We began reading the script and I could very soon “see” some of the people reading in the various roles. Perhaps the most promising person reading was Sgt. John Hobart from my own outfit.
We had not been working for a half an hour when the back door opened and Col Wilder slipped in and sat on an empty chair by the door. My heart stopped! For now, I, as the casting director and in charge of the auditions, was being tried out, too. He stayed and observed the process (who I had read what) and me with great interest. I was so intent on what I was doing that I did not even see when he left. We had two evenings of tryouts and the next day I posted my cast. I went in to Wilder’s office – this time to ask him something even more audacious. “Will you direct the play for us?”
Again he was very coy and told me that his Army responsibilities were very demanding: he was attached to (of all things) designated targets to be bombed in Germany. But then he suddenly agreed and we made out a rehearsal schedule.
By the way, or course I could not find anyone whom I felt could play George, so I quite naturally cast myself in the role and John Hobart, who as a civilian had been Drama Critic for the San Francisco Chronicle before the war, as the Stage Manager. I cast a winsome Wac from Texas named Maude Philbrick as my Emily.
After about a week of rehearsals almost half of the cast was “shipped out” to somewhere and Wilder helped me recast – fortunately none of my leads had gone.
Wilder worked individually with John and Maude and me in our scenes and gave us deep insight as to the under-meaning of the scripted words.
Just one example: in the “Drugstore” scene, he did not allow George and Emily to look directly at each other until the final lines of the scene and then, he said, in that look was their lifetime commitment to each other.
Wilder was so involved in his military work that he turned over the final polishing to Lester Martin Kuehl and put Kuehl’s name on the program instead of his own.
An interesting event occurred during one of our 12 performances. The town of Caserta was in blackout every night because the Luftwaffe was still vainly sending bombers after General Eisenhower’s headquarters. Everyone carried a flashlight, and after dark one would hold the flashlight down with one’s fingers over the lens so only a narrow slit of light would escape to illuminate where one’s feet were being put.
Suddenly one night right after my line, “Emily, would you like an ice cream soda or something before you go home?” all the lights in the palace – including where we were performing – went out! Maude hissed at me, “What shall we do?”
I whispered, “I don’t know…just stand still.”
Then, suddenly from somewhere in the house, a flashlight went on. Then another and another and soon from all over the entire audience we had a focused spotlight. We took up the lines at once; Mr. Morgan (John) gave his speech with his wonderful pantomime of his preparation of our “sodas.” We played that entire scene in that flashlight “spot.” Just as we looked at each other at the end of the scene the lights flashed back on! What an effect! We could not have timed it better if we had rehearsed it for a month!
After our twelve performances, Wilder got Maude and me weekend passes and for the next three weekends Wilder, Maude and I traveled (with a chauffeur, no less) in a “command car” and played the first two acts – through the wedding scene – to wounded soldiers in hospitals. Wilder played the Stage Manager, Emily’s father, George’s father, and had a running narration to the audience to tie all the scenes together. He incorporated all the Stage Manager’s speeches at the beginning of each of the two acts. He knew the whole play by heart, of course.
We did not do the 3rd act – the graveyard scene – as possibly too lugubrious for men who had close brushes with death.
Of course every playing “space” had its own challenges. Usually we were in a mess hall with the tables cleared, sometimes in an assembly room, but never again in a real theatre. It was a wonderful challenge to our imaginations, as indeed is the whole play.
I cannot express the depth of emotion that we felt, too, during and after these performances as the men would come up to us saying things like, “That was just like my town in Vermont,” with tears streaming down their faces. Wilder was invariably gracious and, as Maude and I were, deeply moved by their gratitude for our playing for them.
After these performances we never talked very much. We were far too emotionally upset to talk. I was dropped off at Recale at the Villa Porfidia and Wilder and Maude were driven the remaining couple of miles to AFHQ.
When I did Our Town at the National Music Camp a decade later, Wilder wrote me a very loving note and sent my cast a telegram at the time of the first performance. What a rare and sweet person he was.
And so this is how the sequel to my high school performance ended. If I had not been in that Ann Arbor French class and in that production, the title of that play would have meant nothing to me and I probably would never have seen it or even known that Thornton Wilder was to become a most beloved memory. Isn’t it great how things work out!?!
Composed 19 November 2008; Transcribed by Lucky Jim Bob Stephenson 2008