A Terrorized British City Turns to an All-American Play for Healing
MANCHESTER, England — In the wake of the May terrorist attack at Manchester Arena, which killed 23 people, including the attacker, the space outside the nearby Royal Exchange Theater became a site of public mourning. St. Ann’s Square slowly filled with flowers and other tributes – soft toys, football jerseys, balloons — covering an area the size of a swimming pool. Every day for three weeks, the theater’s staff walked past on their way to work.
At the time, the artistic director Sarah Frankcom was facing a gap in her autumn schedule, the result of a leading actor’s clashing commitments. One play kept coming to mind: Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” An all-American classic, Wilder’s 1938 portrait of small-town life at the turn of the century nonetheless seemed to Ms. Frankcom to chime with the atmosphere in Manchester at that moment.
“All over town, there was a real sense that people were meeting each other in simple, everyday actions,” she recalled. The scene in St. Ann’s Square was a case in point. “We suddenly all went, ‘Oh, that’s why we have town squares, isn’t it?’ It wasn’t about looking at flowers, but about needing to be together.”
“Our Town” has that quality at its heart. It’s not just that Wilder returns us to a simpler time – an era of face-to-face communication and community spirit, a place where everyone knows everyone else. It’s that he taps into something universal.
“When I reread it, I remembered that it says something incredibly profound about the things we all share,” Ms. Frankcom explained. “It speaks about the things – little things and big things – that everybody encounters in life.”
Her production, which began performances in mid-September, combines a professional cast with a community chorus of local residents – teenagers, parents and pensioners. It’s an attempt to put the city itself onstage, inviting Mancunians to see their town in “Our Town.”
On the surface, Wilder’s play might seem an odd choice. Though it’s a syllabus staple in American high schools, a Pulitzer Prize winner regularly staged by amateur drama clubs, “Our Town” isn’t particularly well-known in Britain. Moreover, the lives it depicts feel a long way away – historically, geographically and, indeed, culturally – from modern-day Manchester.
For Ms. Frankcom, however, the distance serves to highlight the similarities. Wilder himself was writing about a way of life 30 years earlier. “He described it as looking into a microscope through a telescope,’’ she explained. “The further away the telescope is, while still picking up detail and specificity, the more it allows you to see some beautiful, truthful things about how we all live.”
To that end, Ms. Frankcom is leaving the connection unspoken, and the text will remain unchanged. However, with British company members retaining their native accents, Ms. Frankcom hopes audience members will see the two towns as one: a Grover’s Corners populated with Mancunians.
And the casting is deliberately diverse, with the Stage Manager – our guide to the town – played by Youssef Kerkour, a British-Moroccan actor of Muslim faith, who moved to New York at 18.
Mr. Kerkour welcomes the responsibility: “Islam’s in the news in a negative way all the time. The discourse around it has been hijacked on both sides — by those committing atrocities and by right-wing groups pushing the politics of fear. Any time you can subvert that, that’s a good thing.”
The role lets him connect closely with audiences – “700 scene partners,” he called them. “In the context of what’s just happened, I’m overjoyed to say, ‘Yes, I’m a Muslim. Come watch the play. Hear my American accent. Look at my beard. We have more in common than we have differences.’ ”
A number of American productions of “Our Town” have lately showcased diversity in their casting. A Chicago staging set the play in a Latino community, and a Miami production this fall will feature characters speaking in English, Spanish and Creole. Deaf West Theater is about to open a version at Pasadena Playhouse that integrates Wilder’s writing with American Sign Language.
And few plays make room for nonprofessionals so comfortably. Without it, the Royal Exchange, one of Britain’s most respected regional houses, which receives public funding from central and local governments, wouldn’t be able to stage it.
With performers drawn from the Royal Exchange’s Young Company and its Company of Elders (locals aged 60-plus), “Our Town” is part of a larger cultural shift among British theaters toward community engagement. “It’s the future of our art form,” Ms. Frankcom said.
Annie Rogers, 19, joined the Young Company two years ago. “Before that, I felt a bit lost in Manchester,” she said. “It’s given me a sense of belonging in this city.” She’s playing Si Crowell, the local paperboy, and sees the play as strengthening the city’s resolve: “Now more than ever, at a time when Manchester’s been shaken by terror and fear, our city needs to be unified and I believe ‘Our Town’ is a symbol of that spirit.”
The Royal Exchange bears its own scars. Twenty years ago it closed for two years after an I.R.A. bomb destroyed its glass dome. “For some people who work in this building, that trauma is still in their bones,” Ms. Frankcom said.
But after the May attack, which occurred as young music fans were streaming out of a concert by the pop singer Ariana Grande, Ms. Frankcom perceived “an amazing sense of solidarity” in the city.
In St. Ann’s Square mourners sang impromptu rounds of Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” Thousands got tattoos of the city’s worker bee symbol – an emblem of Manchester’s industrial roots – to raise money for charity.
For Mr. Kerkour, the effect has been bigger than that. “What we saw in Manchester wasn’t just the city coming together — it was the whole world coming together with Manchester,” he said.
Staging “Our Town” only underscores that, he added: “This is such a universal story, and it’s through that universality that you get real healing going on.”
By MATT TRUEMAN SEPT. 25, 2017