A Summary of Our Town

Actors in the cast of the Broadway revival of the Thornton Wilder classic 'Our Town.'

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Written by Thorton Wilder, Our Town is a play that explores the lives of people living in a small, quintessentially American town. It was first produced in 1938 and received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play is divided into three aspects of the human experience:

Act One: Daily Life

Act Two: Love / Marriage

Act Three: Death / Loss

Act One

The Stage Manager, serving as the play’s narrator, introduces the audience to Grover’s Corners, a small town in New Hampshire. The year is 1901. In the early morning, only a few folks are about. The paperboy delivers papers. The milkman strolls by. Dr. Gibbs has just returned from delivering twins.

Note: There are very few props in Our Town. Most of the objects are pantomimed.

The Stage Manager arranges a few (real) chairs and tables. Two families enter and begin pantomiming breakfast.

The Gibbs Family

  • Dr. Gibbs: Hardworking, soft-spoken, disciplined.
  • Mrs. Gibbs: The Doctor’s wife. She believes her husband is overworked and should take a vacation.
  • George: Their son. Energetic, friendly, sincere.
  • Rebecca: George’s little sister.

The Webb Family

  • Mr. Webb: Runs the town’s newspaper.
  • Mrs. Webb: Strict but loving to her children.
  • Emily Webb: Their daughter. Bright, hopeful and idealistic.
  • Wally Webb: Her younger brother.

Throughout the morning and the rest of the day, the townspeople of Grover’s Corner eat breakfast, work in town, do household chores, garden, gossip, go to school, attend choir practice, and admire the moonlight.

Some of Act One’s More Compelling Moments

  • Dr. Gibbs calmly chastises his son for forgetting to chop firewood. When George has tears in his eyes, he hands him a handkerchief and the matter is resolved.
  • Simon Stimson, the church organist, leads the church choir while intoxicated. He staggers home drunk and deeply troubled. The constable and Mr. Webb try to assist him, but Stimson wanders away. Webb wonders how the man’s sorry situation will end, but decided there is nothing to be done about it.
  • Emily Webb and George Gibbs sit at their windows (according to the stage directions, they are perched on ladders). They talk about algebra and the moonlight. Their words are mundane, perhaps, but their fondness for each other is obvious.
  • Rebecca tells her brother a funny story about a letter Jane Crofut received from a minister. It was addressed: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

Act Two

The Stage Manager explains that three years have passed. It is the wedding day of George and Emily.

The Webb and Gibbs parents lament how their children have grown so quickly. George and Mr. Webb, his soon-to-be father-in-law, awkwardly converse about the futility of marital advice.

Before the wedding commences, the Stage Manager wonders how it all began, both this specific romance of George and Emily, as well as the origins of marriage in general. He takes the audience back in time a bit, to when George and Emily’s romantic relationship began.

In this flashback, George is the captain of the baseball team. Emily has just been elected as the student body treasurer and secretary. After school, he offers to carry her books home. She accepts but suddenly reveals how she does not like the change in his character. She claims that George has become arrogant.

This seems to be a false accusation, however, because George immediately apologizes. He is very grateful to have such an honest friend as Emily. He takes her to the soda shop, where the Stage Manager pretends to be the store owner. There, the boy and girl reveal their devotion to one another.

The Stage Manager segues back to the wedding ceremony. Both the young bride and groom are scared about getting married and growing up. Mrs. Gibbs snaps her son out of his jitters. Mr. Webb calms his daughter’s fears.

The Stage Manager plays the role of the minister. In his sermon, he says of the countless who have gotten married, “Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”

Act Three

The final act takes place in a cemetery in 1913. It is set upon a hill overlooking Grover’s Corner. About a dozen people sit in several rows of chairs. They have patient and somber faces. The Stage Manager tells us that these are the dead citizens of the town.

Among the recent arrivals are:

  • Mrs. Gibbs: Died of pneumonia while visiting her daughter.
  • Wally Webb: Died young. His appendix burst during a Boy Scout trip.
  • Simon Stimson: Facing troubles the audience never understands, he hangs himself.

A funeral procession approaches. The dead characters comment nonchalantly about the new arrival: Emily Webb. She died while giving birth to her second child.

The spirit of Emily walks away from the living and joins the dead, sitting next to Mrs. Gibbs. Emily is pleased to see her. She talks about the farm. She is distracted by the living as they grieve. She wonders how long the sensation of feeling alive will last; she is anxious to feel like the others do.

Mrs. Gibbs tells her to wait, that it is best to be quiet and patient. The dead seem to be looking to the future, waiting for something. They are no longer emotionally connected to the troubles of the living.

Emily senses that one can return to the world of the living, that one can revisit and re-experience the past. With the help of the Stage Manager, and against the advice of Mrs. Gibbs, Emily returns to her 12th birthday. However, everything is too beautiful, too emotionally intense. She chooses to go back to the numbing comfort of the grave. The world, she says, is too wonderful for anyone to truly realize it.

Some of the dead, such as Stimson, express bitterness to the ignorance of the living. However, Mrs. Gibbs and the others believe that life was both painful and wonderful. They take comfort and companionship in the starlight above them.

In the last moments of the play, George returns to weep at Emily’s grave.

EMILY: Mother Gibbs?
MRS. GIBBS: Yes, Emily?
EMILY: They don’t understand, do they?
MRS. GIBBS: No, dear. They don’t understand.

The Stage Manager then reflects upon how, throughout the universe, it may be that only the inhabitants of the earth are straining away. He tells the audience to get a good night’s rest. The play ends.

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Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. "A Summary of Our Town." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/our-town-act-one-overview-2713510. Bradford, Wade. (2021, February 16). A Summary of Our Town. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/our-town-act-one-overview-2713510 Bradford, Wade. "A Summary of Our Town." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/our-town-act-one-overview-2713510 (accessed March 26, 2023).