Few would argue that Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is one of the most loved plays of the 20th century. Since its debut in 1938 it has received countless productions, professional and amateur, in every corner of the United States and beyond. The play’s lack of pretension in both writing and staging, its celebration of the commonplace joys and tragedies of life, its understated wellspring of emotions and its seeming universality—all have made Our Town one of the most cherished works in our culture, and its author the voice of wisdom and clarity in an uncertain world. Today, 40 years after his death, Wilder and the rest of his startlingly peripatetic career and achievements have been largely obscured by the overwhelming success of this one play—and Wilder the theatrical iconoclast has been homogenized into Wilder the benevolent chronicler of a wistful past.
This, of course, belies the sophisticated artistry and tremendous variety of one of our great literary geniuses. Equally accomplished in fiction and drama (he’s one of the few authors to have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes in both categories), Wilder was a tireless experimenter in both subject matter and form, an intensely private man whose works explored, in his own words, “the perpetual alternation/of hope and dejection/of Plans and Defeat/of Aspiration and Rebuff.” His plays defy categorization by genre or type; unlike many of his realism-steeped contemporaries, he not only acknowledges the artificial environs of the stage but celebrates them, using them to reveal the absurdities of human action itself. Nowhere is this approach more evident than in his 1955 comic masterpiece The Matchmaker. Wilder’s foray into the world of farce includes not only healthy portions of comic chaos, but an unexpectedly nuanced view of characters struggling to escape the proscribed lives that the world has imposed upon them, ready to risk what they have to experience the presumably heady pleasures of what they don’t. Disaster can indeed loom just around the corner—but so too can liberation, joy and love. Perhaps inevitably eclipsed in popularity by it musical iteration Hello, Dolly!, The Matchmaker is seldom produced today, but remains one of Wilder’s best works. It’s a fizzy, exuberant celebration of human foibles, romantic entanglements and the possibilities of connection in an often disconnected world.
Long an admirer of Wilder and his work, director Henry Wishcamper has worked closely with the author’s nephew and literary executor Tappan Wilder to create a new adaptation of this comic gem, and has assembled a talented and diverse cast to bring it to the Goodman stage. The result is a production that honors every element of this supremely unique farce—and a fitting tribute to an author whose far-ranging vision and theatricality left an indelible impression on the American theater.