When Thornton Wilder wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning three-act play Our Town, he intentionally wrote it so parts of the stage—props, sets, scenery—would be bare, allowing his audience to fill in the blanks with their own lives.
Wilder wanted his audience to see their town in Our Town.
But it came as a bit of a shock to Moorestown High School theater director Greg Harr, while preparing for the school’s fall production of Our Town, when he discovered Moorestown’s unique connection to Wilder’s classic play.
One night, while flipping through the afterword of an edition of Our Town, Harr stumbled across a passage explaining how the play’s crucial wedding scene was inspired by the 1935 wedding of Wilder’s brother, Amos, and his wife, Catherine Kerlin, which was held on East Central Avenue in Moorestown. Wilder was the best man at the wedding.
Harr reached out to the Historical Society, assuming the Our Town connection was already common knowledge and he was just “late to the game.”
Normally he’d be right, said Society trustee Lenny Wagner. But not in this case.
Within hours of learning of Harr’s discovery, Wagner was on the phone with Kerlin’s children, Wilder’s niece and nephew. Wagner learned they were trying to find a home for some of their mother’s possessions, including a number of wedding photos, the wedding certificate and her dress.
They gifted the items, permanently, to the Historical Society. They’re presently on display in the lobby of the high school and will be put on display at the Society headquarters after the play is finished its run.
In terms of the “cool” factor, Wagner said, “This is pretty high up there, in terms of the stuff I’ve found. Part of it is, it was ready-made. We opened up the box (from Wilder’s family) and we had a display.”
While he was enormously pleased with the unexpected discovery, it did not come as a shock to Wagner.
“Things like this, they come to us a lot,” said Wagner. “It never surprises me, the connection of Moorestown to a whole variety of things that have gone on throughout history. We’re kind of like the Forrest Gump of history.”
'My town is our town'
Harr said the Moorestown-Our Town connection had an immediate impact on the students’ perception of the play, grounding the story in real life.
“When Mr. Wagner came in to speak with them, they were very attentive, and fascinated by it,” said Harr. “There’s two aspects of it: One, the playwright was in the town itself. That (alone) would have been a big deal; and to learn that what happened while he was here played some role in the lines that they’re saying, I think really excited them.”
Senior Alex George, who plays female lead Emily Webb, said she gained a heightened appreciation for the story upon learning about its local connection.
George, 17, in discussing the emotional resonance of the story, said, “(The local connection) does play into the emotional thing, because you know that it happened to real people, and it’s not something distant.”
“You never really expect anything like that,” said Rhys Schiebe, who plays the Stage Manager. “It shows what Thornton Wilder was trying to say with Grover’s Corners, that it’s not just this town. The people in it don’t really think anything of it … My town is our town.”
Schiebe said he’s actually been inside the home in question, which belongs to Councilwoman Stacey Jordan and her husband.
Jordan had no idea of the home’s history until Wagner pulled into her driveway, she said. “It was pretty neat. I hope people get excited about it being in our own backyard.”
The home will be on the Cooks Tour in December and Jordan said she’s trying to work out an arrangement with the Historical Society to have Kerlin’s wedding paraphernalia on display in the home during the tour.
Harr and Wagner also hope to arrange a Skype call with Wilder’s nephew, Tappan Wilder, so he can speak with the students ahead of the play’s Oct. 25 premiere.
Tappan, who described himself as “sort of the operating officer” of his uncle’s estate, wrote the afterword containing the Moorestown reference. He’s looking forward to the prospect of chatting with the cast.
“Anybody involved in theater today knows reaching out to a younger generation to realize the magic of theater is pretty important work,” he said.
Our Town opens at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25 in the high school auditorium, with additional shows on Oct. 26 and 27. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and senior citizens.
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