In May of 2016, dozens upon dozens of mental health workers gathered together at a cemetery in suburban Pennsylvania to mourn the loss of a coworker and dear friend, psychologist Israel Paltin, who had passed away from cancer. He was a giant of a man, painfully gorgeous inside and out, and as honest as his favorite catchphrase, “NO BULLSHIT!” The rabbi who presided at his funeral met with Israel a few weeks before he died, and the rabbi told us that Israel warned him that his funeral must be short and simple—“just the basic prayers.” The rabbi then added, with a wry smile, “No bullshit.”
Thornton Wilder, I think, would have approved of Israel’s bare funeral. After all, his play, Our Town, is a “no bullshit” play: no props, no scenery, except for two trellises, two tables, two ladders, and a bunch of chairs. It’s a play about simple, stark people—practical New Englanders who waste little time on flowery language and superfluous emotionality. Our Town tells the story of ordinary people living ordinary lives against the backdrop of an infinitely complex cosmos. Two families live their lives across the way from each other, two young people fall in love and get married, a choir sings, the townsfolk gossip, people live, people die: curtain. It’s a play as simple and as complicated as we are. And that’s why, two years earlier, I set out to produce and perform Our Town with my colleagues at Montgomery County Emergency Service, (MCES), a non-profit crisis psychiatric hospital, where we all worked back then, where we all worked with our friend, Israel.
It’s hard to know how a play can change your life, but, just two years later, I found out.
As practically all of MCES gathered around Israel’s coffin and around his family, I looked around the cemetery and saw so many of us huddled together, grieving Israel’s passing. The sight reminded me of Act III of Our Town, when the people of Grover’s Corners gathered together at a cemetery to say farewell to a young and vibrant Emily Webb, who had passed away delivering her second child. I knew we all had to come back together for a happier reason, to celebrate the wonderful, strange success of Our Town, a play put on by a rag-tag band of mental health workers. So, a few days after Israel’s funeral, I emailed everyone and asked them to come home—to Building 33 on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital, the theatre where it all happened.
I was filled with dread as I wrote that email. I started fretting about whether it was “the right thing to do” or not. Worrying about whether I had inflated the importance of our experiment with Our Town, that maybe it wasn’t as important to everyone else. I do this to myself, out of habit—this is how my brain is wired, and I hate it. I obsess and defeat before I do, well, anything. But it never seems to stop me. So I wrote the email and hit “Send” in spite of myself.
One of themes explored in Our Town is the idea of going back—the joys and the perils of looking back, as the deceased Emily does in Act III, when she goes back to the world of the living to view her twelfth birthday. “Don’t do it, Emily,” warns the also departed Mrs. Gibbs. And I found myself thinking about that solemn graveyard admonition as I contemplated bringing everyone back together for a reunion. Should we try to “go back” ourselves? What if the evening falls flat? What if there is an argument or bad feelings? What if it’s just too painful to remember? One fretful night, I texted my former MCES colleague Cate Murray, who sat beside me every night of rehearsal as my intrepid stage and production manager, essentially this very list of worries and what if’s, to which she replied, “What if a nuclear bomb goes off? Is that on your list too?”
It wasn’t, but only because I hadn’t thought about that, too.
I didn’t know how many would come. After all, in the two years since that first rehearsal, so many of us had, for one reason or another, left MCES, me included. In fact, about half the cast had a different job now. To my happy surprise, almost everyone came back for the reunion. The frank, unfiltered conversation of friends who’d served in the trenches of mental health together for years served as the backdrop to tables filled with salads, taco dip, bacon-wrapped hotdogs and myriad desserts (apparently, I didn’t keep very good track of who was bringing what). After a while, I invited everyone to go back into the theatre— whereupon people immediately professed that they couldn’t remember any of their lines. “Don’t worry,” I said, “we won’t be doing any scenes tonight.”
We just sat and talked—about the play, about Israel, about ourselves and what the experience of Our Town meant to us. And as I sat and listened to these people— these sometimes very guarded and cautious people—opening up and taking risks and being vulnerable, I was filled with such pride and warmth, knowing that theatre had made this kind of evening possible.
I don’t know if it’s possible for a human heart to break a thousand times in one night and still keep ticking, but mine did as we talked and remembered and laughed and cried with each other. It was like a funeral and a wedding and a reunion and a rehearsal all wrapped up into one. All the fear and apprehension that had gripped onto me like a vice as I thought about and planned this event melted away once I was in the presence of these genuine, lovely people who trusted me to take care of them during the rehearsals for this play. During the performances, they all took care of themselves—they didn’t need me to hold their hands anymore.
Some asked me how I knew producing Our Town with a bunch of mental health workers who had never done a play would work. “I knew it would work,” I said, “because it had to. I wanted it to work for you.” So it was a selfish exercise, but theatre, I reasoned, is selfish. We pretend it’s about the audience but, really, it’s about us. Our Town was, as another colleague of mine put it, “a gift we gave to ourselves.” A gift for our creative expression, to enhance our own mental health, to help us reflect on the way we are with our families and our patients and ourselves, to go back to a time where mothers warned their children to “chew that bacon good and slow” and enforced “no books at table” instead of smart-phones and tablets.
Our Town taught me more than any class I’ve ever taken, any lecture I’ve ever endured, and more than any conversation I’ve ever had. It taught me that we are who we are because of who we love, and how we show it. It taught me that people are capable of far more than they know. It taught me that I have to continue doing crazy things, and I have to keep asking good people to do them with me. Our Town also re-affirmed my belief that theatre is essential, not a luxury, in all of our lives. This little play of ours taught me that really looking at another person is the hardest, and most important, thing you can ever do with your life.
View the first post, Life Lessons From Our Town at MCES, and watch the original video here:
EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR: Bud Clayman | VIDEO: Glenn Holsten | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein