Our Town of Tyringham
A community adapts Thornton Wilder’s classic play
Photo by Gregor Cherin
It was on Memorial Day two years ago when Ann Gallo realized her destiny. She was standing in Tyringham Cemetery with her husband, taking in the ceremony, scanning the crowd. The cemetery holds over 800 headstones that date as far back as the 1770s and represents Tyringham’s genealogy. And the Memorial Day gathering largely represented the community’s present-day members. That’s when she whispered her idea to her husband: a production of Our Town acted by townspeople and staged in the cemetery.
“It’s just one of those drop-dead picturesque places,” says Gallo of her adopted town. “Just talking about it, I get shivers. It was just incredible.”
Gallo, who has owned a home in Tyringham since 1999 and has a background in theater working with youth, has never produced a stage production. Her first effort proved to be more than simply putting together a performance. It required canvassing and meeting new people, bringing together the community, and traversing family histories that go back to Tyringham’s beginnings.
One of the people she “unearthed” during her quest is Barbara Palmer, who married into a family that first came to Tyringham in the 1890s. Palmer was game, viewing the play as a chance to move beyond casual interaction with her fellow citizens. “It’s such a unique thing to be working with other people in a community and getting to know them in a different way from just town meetings or pancake breakfasts,” Palmer says.
Gallo followed other community connections to build her production. She began with older residents—the town elders—and subsequently visited various groups—a book club, the volunteer fire department, the town selectmen, a church service, and a senior-citizen’s group—and held a community meeting and a free screening of the 1977 version of Thornton Wilder’s iconic play, starring Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager.
“I can go to the post office and know 99 percent of the people there,” Gallo says, “which is shocking and fun and it takes a long time to pick up my mail. I think everyone is experiencing the same thing.”
Eventually, Gallo held a fireside read-through of the play, for which nearly 50 people crammed into a room to take turns reading passages. She also found two creative cohorts in the production, director Courtney O’Connor and, in the role of vocal coach, Shakespeare & Company actress Corinna May.
“I saw the signs for Our Town at the post office and started talking to her about it,” May says. “I said that I can’t be in it because I am union and it’s a non-union production, but would it be helpful to you to have a vocal coach? It was me saying, please, can I do something to support you?”
May also has another, very personal reason for wanting to participate. Her house in Tyringham was built by actors and life partners William Roerick and Thomas Coley, who met in the original production in 1938, each playing baseball players, and later, each playing George Gibbs in various productions.
“Bill and Tom are buried in the cemetery in Tyringham adjacent to the spot where we will be doing Act 3,” says May. “It gives me goosebumps to think about it.”
That’s an example of the personal history that Tyringham residents have brought to the play, and it’s these little stories that join Wilder’s narrative in a meaningful way. The town and the play co-exist in this production, and to drive that point home, the production is staged in two important public spaces, as Gallo had hoped it would be—the front lawn of the Union Church and a field bordering the Tyringham Cemetery. Additionally, family names in the original play have been replaced with those of Tyringham’s founding families, such as Heath, Curtin, and Loring.
“Tyringham is a very special place,” Palmer says, “because it’s tiny and has a lot of people who have longtime ties to the community, where you know a lot about each and who is whose cousin, and who married who, and who doesn’t like who, and all those things, so it’s very much reflected in Our Town.”
Having 40 people in the production means that a solid ten percent of the town’s population is participating. Gallo hopes that the other 90 percent will come to see their neighbors perform and discover more about each other than daily life typically allows. The cast list includes the man who runs the transfer station, the ladies in the post office, and descendants of the town founders.
“You pull back the covers a little bit,” says Gallo. “This is Yankee territory. Everyone’s very protective. We want everyone to feel safe, and we’re not setting them up for failure. Folks have fun, and we’re going to make sure that they feel confident.”
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town will be performed by Tyringham residents at 11 a.m. on Aug. 5, 6, 12, 13, 2017 on the front lawn of the Union Church, 128 Main Rd., and in a nearby field bordering the cemetery. Tickets: $5 for Tyringham residents and family, $20 for non-residents, free for children under 10. Purchase when you get there.