Vanessa Babcock, the protagonist of Calla Devlin’s debut, Tell Me Something Real, is sixteen. She lives with her parents, her older sister, Adrienne, andtell-me-something-real-9781481461160_lg her younger sister, Marie, in San Diego. Their mother, Iris, has leukemia, and Vanessa and her sisters often accompany her to a clinic in Mexico where she is treated with the controversial drug, Laetrile.

…the FDA’s banned Laetrile in the States, [and] a lot of people are coming to Mexico to treat their cancer. Most aren’t as lucky as we are, living in San Diego so close to the border.

Each of the girls have their own quirks. Adrienne is prone to swearing like a sailor. Marie is fascinated with the Catholic saints. Vanessa dreams of attending music school. Their father, an architect, works too much, leaving the care of Iris to his daughters, care that is taking its toll.

On one trip to the clinic Vanessa meets Caleb, a boy just a little older than she is who is also taking Laetrile. When Iris suggests that they open their home to Caleb and his mother, Barb, in an effort to make it easier for Caleb to receive his treatments, it seems like a win-win. Barb cooks real meals, and her sunny disposition improves life for everyone. And then there’s Caleb.

He looks healthy, sunburned, and rosy cheeked like me. It isn’t until he steps through the entryway – away from the protection of the flowers – that I recognize he is one of them.

Caleb becomes Vanessa’s touchstone, until one day he tells Vanessa that he and his mother are going home. Something isn’t right in the Babcock home, but he is reluctant to say just what that something is.

I have mixed feelings about Tell Me Something Real. There’s no arguing that Devlin is a talented writer, even though I didn’t feel like this debut went anyplace particularly special. Vanessa’s first person narrative is compelling enough, but her sisters seem more like a collection of quirky attributes than flesh and blood people. The plot does take an unusual turn, but even that felt somehow contrived.

What I wanted, I guess, was an emotional centre and despite the (melo)drama, Tell Me Something Real just didn’t have a beating heart. I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it, for sure, but it was just only so-so for me.

ourtownI have loved Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Our Town, since I was fourteen or fifteen. I was trying to figure out how I would have come into contact with it, as I certainly didn’t read it while in school. My best guess is that it was because of Robby Benson, who starred in an adaptation of the play which must have aired on television. If you are a regular visitor to this blog, then you know that Robby and I go way (way) back.

I probably purchased my copy of the play around then – it’s an Avon paperback which, according to the cover, cost $1.75. (I know, eh?) It’s dog-eared and highlighted and marked up and the words contained within still, after all these years, move me.

In the Foreward of the HarperPerennial edition of the play Donald Marguiles, an American playwright and professor, calls Wilder “the first American playwright.” Marguiles further posits that Wilder paved the way for many of the playwrights who came after, and are perhaps better known: Albee, Williams, Miller.

First produced for the stage in 1938, Wilder’s play takes place in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire. The play is performed on a bare stage. The actors mime their stage business. For theatre goers attending that first production, Wilder’s play must have seemed wildly modern.

“Stripping the stage of fancy artifice, Wilder set himself a formidable challenge,” says Marguiles. “With two ladders, a few pieces of furniture, and a minimum of props, he attempted to “find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.””

Our Town could be any town. That’s the point. The characters on the stage are us. The three act structure of the play mirrors the circle of life: birth, love and marriage, death. One might easily argue that nothing happens. Yet the exact opposite is true: everything happens.

The Stage Manager guides us through the play.  Our Town is a fine example of metadrama; that is a play which draws attention to the fact that it is a play. The Stage Manager acts both as a sort of Greek chorus and bit player. He has the power to alert the audience to events in the future and to allow characters to revisit the past, as he does – famously –  for Emily in Act Three.

The language of the play is simple. Characters speak colloquially. They are just average citizens, concerned with the weather, town gossip, and their children. Even my class of grade ten students were able to see themselves in George and Emily. It is a tribute to the timeless quality of the play that despite the intervening years – from the play’s debut until now –  not much has changed.

DR. GIBBS: Well, George, while I was in my office today I heard a funny sound…and what do you think it was? It was your mother chopping wood. There you see your mother – getting up early; cooking meals all day; washing and ironing  – and still she has to go out in the backyard and chop wood. I suppose she just got tired of asking you. And you eat her meals, and put on the clothes she keeps nice for you., and you run off and play baseball, – like she’s some hired girl we keep around the house but that we don’t like very much.

As a teenager I would have certainly seen myself in that passage. Now, I see my own children.

We are all the same: we are born, we live and we die. The Stage Manager remarks  that even in Babylon “all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, – same as here.”  It underscores one of the play’s motifs: time and its passing. What do we know of those people? “…all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then,” remarks the Stage Manager.

In the Joss Whedon’s landmark television show Angel, the title character says “If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.” (Epiphany, 2001)

In Our Town‘s final act Emily comes to the same realization, albeit too late. “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” she cries.

The Stage Manager replies: “No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

Perhaps my students aren’t quite ready to acknowledge life’s brevity. I know, for sure, they don’t live “every, every minute.” Why should they? I didn’t. I don’t.

Wilder’s play is a powerful reminder, though, that we should. And that message is as meaningful now in 2013 as it was in 1938.