It's a little play with all the big subjects in it.
-- Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, 1937
Act I : Daily Life
As a few elementary pieces of furniture are brought out, the Stage Manager introduces the setting: Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. It's May 7, 1901, just before dawn. Establishing the layout of the town, he focuses on the homes of Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs and Editor and Mrs. Webb. From the beginning, the Stage Manager sets a tone of ordinariness: "Nice town, y'know what I mean? Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it."
As the day begins, we hear bits of gossip and news about the town: a marriage, a birth, a milkman's reluctant horse. We get acquainted with the children in the two families: George and Rebecca Gibbs and Emily and Wally Webb. George, age 15, is proud of his prowess at baseball; Emily, a year younger, is a top student at school and not shy about it.
As morning segues to afternoon, George walks Emily home from school. The Stage Manager describes what's going to be put in the time capsule cornerstone of the new bank, so "people a thousand years from now" will know what life in Grover's Corners was like. As evening takes over, the action switches back and forth between George and Emily doing homework and their mothers at choir practice, where organist Simon Stimson seems unable to mask his tipsiness. The women return home, discussing Simon's troubles. The Stage Manager announces the end of the first act.
Act II : Love and Marriage
It's July 7, 1904, just after high school commencement. In the Stage Manager's words, "Nature's been pushing and contriving," and many of the young people in town are planning weddings -- George Gibbs and Emily Webb among them. Over breakfast Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs fret that George may not be old enough for marriage, and they reminisce about their own wedding day.
The Stage Manager then takes us back a year to an exchange between Emily and George. She criticizes him for changes she sees in him and George, struck by her observations, invites her to join him in an ice cream soda at the drugstore. He admits that he's torn between going away to agricultural college or staying in Grover's Corners, As he realizes that Emily's opinion means more to him than anyone's, Emily realizes that she feels the same way about him. "So," concludes George," "I guess this is an important conversation we've been having."
Doubling as minister, the Stage Manager gives a brief sermon about marriage. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs also reveal their thoughts, while they calm the wedding jitters of each of their children. As the wedding tableau freezes, the Stage Manager recalls the many couples he's married and what comes after: "the cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will, -- Once in a thousand times it's interesting." And as George and Emily run up the aisle, the second act ends.
Act III : Life and Death
The stage has changed, with three rows of chairs representing graves in the cemetery. Among the dead are Mrs. Gibbs, Wally Webb, and Simon Stimson. It's nine years later, the summer of 1913, and the Stage Manager updates us on Grover's Corners. He reflects on how there's something eternal about every human being and how the dead gradually let go of their earthly lives.
Emily, who has just died in childbirth, appears in the cemetery. She can't resign herself to death, and wants to know why she can't go back and live some of her life over. The dead try to dissuade her, but she insists. Mrs. Gibbs urges her to choose the least important day in her life: "It will be important enough." Emily goes back in time to her twelfth birthday and relives the day, experiencing the joys of everyday life but also the pain of seeing the precious, fleeting moments of her youth now lost forever. Increasingly distraught, Emily asks the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave, but she lingers to say goodbye to the things she loved.
In the cemetery, Stimson snarls about the follies and ignorance of human beings, but Mrs. Gibbs comes to their defense, although she agrees with Emily that, "they [living people] don't understand." As a grieving George Gibbs throws himself at Emily's grave, the Stage Manager announces that almost everyone's asleep in Grover's Corners, takes one final look at the stars, and wishes us a good rest, too.
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