On the trail of 
Grover’s Corners

Last modified: 1/6/2014 6:42:12 PM
In 1990, Director Paul Caister was looking for a play with a large cast for his drama school, The Poor School and Workhouse Theatre in King’s Cross, London, England. A friend handed him “Our Town.” Caister started to read it, and didn’t warm to the play immediately. But by the time he got to Act II, where George and Emily are preparing for their wedding day, Caister began to realize that there might be something special about this play by Thornton Wilder.

Over the course of his career, Caister has directed “Our Town” three times, and it’s become his favorite play. The story is a fairly simple one, telling about the lives of a small New Hampshire town over the course of 13 years, from 1901 to 1914. The play focuses on Emily Webb and George Gibbs throughout the second and third acts. The first act introduces the town. The second shows the marriage of Emily and George. In the third, Emily has died in childbirth and returns as a ghost to ruminate on her life.

“It gets better the more I know it, which is a good measure of a great work,” said Caister in an interview Saturday in Peterborough. “And there are very few plays that get better the more you know them. It’s a deceptively lyrical piece.”

Sometime in the mid-90s, after Caister had directed the play for the first time, he made a quiet resolution: One day, he would visit “Our Town.” Or at least the town that the fictional Grover’s Corners was based on, a small town in New Hampshire, called Peterborough. It wasn’t until 20 years later, though, that he finally realized his dream. On Friday, along with his daughter, Anya Caister, 22, he arrived in Peterborough, and set out to explore the town’s atmosphere and visit some of the sites the famous scenes in his favorite play were based on.

When he first became interested in taking a trip to Peterborough, he said, he began to poke around a bit online, and was shocked to discover that Peterborough wasn’t considered a major tourist draw. There were no “Our Town” tours or themed restaurants or hotels. The city hadn’t really capitalized on its immortalization, he said.

But that just made him want to see it more. So, with no pre-made map of Grover’s Corners tourist attractions, Caister made his own.

On Saturday, he was at the Pine Hill Cemetery in Peterborough, an approximation of the cemetery where the third act takes place. On Sunday, a visit to the Congregational Church to sit in on services. And in between, he toured some of the well-known spots in town, visiting the Peterboro Diner, Toadstool Bookshop and the MacDowell Colony, where Wilder resided for a time in 1937 during the period he was writing “Our Town.” Caister also walked the streets of Peterborough, getting to know what he considers one of the main characters of his favorite play, the town itself.

“I can’t think of any other play where the town plays the lead,” mused Caister. “You think there would be. Virtually anywhere has its share of nutters,” he added with a laugh. But only “Our Town” seems to really delve into the habits and foibles, not only of the characters, but really the environment they’re in, he said. “That’s why I wanted to take this trip.”

Having already staged the play three times, Caister said he doesn’t plan to direct it again in the near future, though he added that he might just have one more in him. And visiting Peterborough and spending the weekend speaking with people that have varying degrees of knowledge about the play has stoked the love he has for the work.

“It has brought something right into focus for me. I’m not going to [direct “Our Town”] next year, but it’s something that’s always there,” he said. And he does intend to spread the love. “I think it’s a misunderstood play. Many people feel it’s old-fashioned. But I think it has many qualities that should be celebrated, and it’s a dead modern play.”

It would take more than three days to know the town, said Caister, but he does feel like he’s accomplished what he set out to do. “It was a splendid time,” said Caister. “Everything about the whole thing was exceptionally positive. I’m very happy that I made the trip. It’s hard to say what I expected when I came here. But everyone I met was not simply friendly in a sentimental way, but helpful and genuinely interested. I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to say I know the town after one weekend, but in my heart, I wanted to go to Grover’s Corners, and I’m sure I have been.” For more information about Caister and The Poor School, visit www.thepoorschool.com.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.


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