What’s in a Name?

A Facebook friend shared that she sent a letter to a well known writer in response to an article he posted at his website. The article included a reference to Emily Webb Gibbs, a character from the Sinclair Lewis play, “Our Town.” My friend’s comment triggered a memory of my high school classmate, MerriJo Morton*. MerriJo was a member of my sophomore class when we went to see Lewis’s play “Our Town.”  The character Emily Webb Gibbs made quite an impression on her too, as you will see…

My high school American Lit class was given free passes to a production of “Our Town” at the Seattle Rep as part of an arts appreciation effort directed toward Seattle area high school kids. One member of our group, MerriJo, was not the least bit pleased about going to see the play but was glad to get out of the standard classroom setting for an afternoon. We were all in our seats, the play ready to begin when MerriJo, unhappy and feeling stifled in the theater, began to get noisy and somewhat disruptive. Her behavior generated scowls and urgent whispers of “Shhh!” and “Sit down!” from teachers and classmates alike. 

 Once the play started, MerriJo relaxed and became attentive to and engaged in the stage presentation. No one knew just how engaged she was until the moment in the play when it became clear that the main character, a young mother named Emily Webb Gibbs, had died. Shocked and obviously upset, MerriJo suddenly sat up in her seat and leaned toward the stage as she keened, “No-ooo! No-ooo!” This time, her noisy outburst was met with compassion, tissues, and hugs. Many of the students in the audience were weeping, but MerriJo was the only one who let her feelings truly, intensely, enter into the action of the play. She had crossed the threshold from a passive observer in the audience to a fully involved participant in the story.

On our way home after the play, there was plenty of discussion about what we had just experienced at The Rep, and MerriJo spoke with a seriousness that no one had seen in her before. The play had affected all of us, but it had changed MerriJo.

MerriJo’s emotional reaction to the death of Emily in the play initiated several surprising outcomes. First, it improved some opinions about MerriJo, herself. She earned a new level of respect that day because she illustrated to us how powerful the arts can be, even for someone who was not particularly interested in them.

Second, MerriJo’s grief-stricken response to Emily’s death drew attention to the importance of the ghost-Emily’s question in the play – a question which also happened to be the central theme of the play: Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?

And finally, thanks to MerriJo, I think the actors in that presentation of Seattle Rep’s “Our Town” went home happy, maybe even saying to themselves, “Mission accomplished.” 

True story. 

Has a work of art ever been the source of a profound impact on your life?

*Story is true but the name MerriJo is not.

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