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Being Emily in ‘Our Town’: Readers Share Why the Role Mattered


Prompted by the publication of “Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ in the 21st Century,” Laura Collins-Hughes interviewed eight actors who’ve portrayed the tragic young newlywed Emily Webb. Then we asked readers to share their own experiences playing the part in a drama that continues to be produced in schools and on stages throughout the world. Edited responses follow.

I was a small town Texas high school Emily in 1966. I had to talk the speech teacher — we had no drama teacher — into doing it because I loved it and so wanted to be in it. On the Monday after the weekend production, the toughest “hood” in school, a big burly guy complete with cigarettes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve, came up to me and said I must be a “real good actor” because I’d made him cry. I was so touched, and two years later he was dead in Vietnam. BETHANY PHENEGER, Houston

I played Emily in a summer stock theater in a former barn in the ’80s. There was not a dry eye onstage in the third act. My grandmother could not speak to me due to tears at the end of the show. Now I am facing a life-threatening illness, after living a very full life. The other Emilys I’ve seen — and mine — come back to me. GRETCHEN KEHDE, Brooklyn

I have often been asked how it felt to be 64 playing 18 in the 2002 Transport Group production. With six decades of life under my belt, I had the advantage of already knowing most of Emily’s thoughts, words, and relationships. Even in her remembering, I could walk through it all, reawakening in my own heart my present tense reality at the same time. My very age brought a resonance to the simplest, most profound thoughts. BARBARA ANDRES, New York

I read “Our Town” in elementary school but didn’t really understand it at the time. Years later, right after college, our family had to unexpectedly sell my childhood home. It was the first of several deep losses I experienced in early adulthood. When I moved to Los Angeles a few years after, one of my first jobs was to play Emily at Sierra Madre Playhouse. When I came to that speech where she says goodbye, I finally understood what it meant to say goodbye to something and someone you will never see again. And when I said those words every night, I finally said goodbye to my childhood home — the rough red bricks of the front path, my favorite hidden tree which I would climb to read and write in solitude, the sun-dappled kitchen where I first learned to cook. Emily’s words, Thornton Wilder’s words, helped heal something inside me that I hadn’t even realized had been broken. LILA DUPREE, Los Angeles

My mom played Emily in her private high school’s production of “Our Town” — it had to have been about 1953-54. Her family always said she was amazing in the part. The same year as the play she became pregnant and had to leave school. The baby was put up for adoption; my mom returned to school, but life was forever altered. She eventually wed the father of the baby, never graduated high school, had two more children (I’m the youngest) and didn’t appear in a play again until she was in her late 40s when she was cast as Esther Franz in “The Price.”

She always talked about “Our Town,” made sure I read it, saw the movie and shared her memories of performing that role often. When she was dying very prematurely in her late 60s, she discussed with her sister what she wanted read and sung at her memorial service. I was surprised to find out after she’d passed that she wanted me to somehow work into my eulogy Emily’s speech from “Our Town.” Of course I did, and for a brief second there, at the lectern in the Episcopal Church of East Hampton, I did get to “play” Emily — conjuring up those stories of when my mom played that part and realizing just why she wanted it read at her memorial. ELLEN DIOGUARDI, Sag Harbor, New York


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