Centre Stage One Acts January-February 2001: A Review and Reaction
by Susan D. Thomas
The production, by the Baltimore Stage Company, of four Wilder one-act plays was a memorable event, bringing several of Wilder’s splendid, but lesser known, works to a large audience in January and February 2001. Although The Long Christmas Dinner, which anchored the first half of the evening, and Pullman Car Hiawatha, which was the glorious finale, were the central pieces of the evening, The Wreck on the 5:25, one of Wilder’s “4 Minute Plays for Four Persons” a group of plays also known as The Seven Deadly Sins, was haunting in its depiction of Sloth, that sin which makes us unable to participate fully in life’s trials and wonders.
The play concerns Herbert Hawkins, who is its focus on stage and off. Living deep in suburbia, the territory so well populated in John Cheever’s short and novels, Hawkins commutes to work daily, while his wife and daughter worry daily about how to please him. At the beginning of the play, they fuss about his dinner, tirelessly listing various meat dishes he does and does not like, outlining his reading habits, and worrying over his lateness coming home this particular day. And indeed he is late. A neighbor, who has heard that Hawkins has come into money and is eager to take advantage of it himself, enters with the news that Hawkins has inherited $20,000 from a grateful client whose life he had cheered. At about the same moment, the family notice that they are being watched by a man standing by their garage, a man, who, they come to realize, is Hawkins himself, depressed at his distance from life and by his own deep feeling of disconnectedness and unworthiness. And so Hawkins makes his entrance to the play as a man in despair at his own good fortune. All life, for him, consists of events and relationships at a distance, looked at from the outside, through a pane of glass, whether it be the glass of the train windows which allow him to look into the lives of people living in the neighboring town of Bennsville or the glass of his own living room window, as he stands outside looking in. “All window glass is the same,” is his motto, famously quoted in the community as a joke. It is no joke to him. He can not appreciate his family, friends, and good fortune, but he can envy others. He prefers those he does not know, the people in Bennsville, to those he does, his own family, for example, who, unlike him, actually know people in Bennsville. He does not even recognize his own wife when she is in the city rather than in his suburban living room. He is lost.
So why is this Wilder’s play about sloth? At first, the Hawkins family seems stereotypically slothful because of the wrenching boredom and dailiness of their lives, commuting, like Hawkins, on precisely the same train each day, discussing, with relentless repetition, daily food and daily reading, unwilling to take risks, to leap out into life. “Our lives are just as exciting as they ought to be,” Mrs. Hawkins tells daughter Minnie. But we come to realize that there is a more enervating sloth in this family, and a deeply destructive one.
Herbert Hawkins, he who cheered up the life of a dying old woman, he who makes neighbors and friends laugh, on the train and at church, is unable to accept life at all. When it comes up and smacks him, as it does when he receives the inheritance, he is troubled, feeling that this is not his life but a life “looked at through glass.” His benefactor has challenged him to participate fully in life, to put her money where his mouth is. And he cannot. So it is not simply Mrs. Hawkins and Minnie and their neighbor Forbes who are stuck in lives of slothful repetition. It is Herbert himself; it is Herbert who is unwilling to receive life’s fortune and bounty, who looks at his family without knowledge and recognition. He jokes but can not participate. He can cheer but is himself cheerless. He can talk but not act. He is the wreck on the 5:25.
The Wreck on the 5:25 is, like most of Wilder’s plays, deeply meditative, a consideration of issues more commonly found in essays and short stories. What is remarkable is that Wilder, here and in his better know works Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, makes philosophical issues dramatic, demonstrating how daily events wrestle with the large issues of life and, in fact, are themselves the large issues of life. And not always in big and momentous ways as Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Skin of Our Teeth suggest. These plays tease us to consider each moment, a train ride, for example, or a holiday meal, in universal terms, as if our actions take place in large patterns of repeated events and behavior, all of which dwindle beneath the even larger events of the universe. In The Seven Deadly Sins plays, as in Our Town, it is the small events which capture our attention. The dailiness of our lives become the stuff of the moral and philosophical problems with which theologians and philosophers wrestle: catching the train, selecting food for dinner, reaching out to our families for love and support, giving, or trying to give, that love and support in return, even accepting and giving presents. All these repeated events define us, make us what we are, and, as Wilder shows us over and over again, are themselves dramatic. The perception that what is familiar is what is important is key to Wilder’s brilliance and to the comfort his works provide. It is what makes us love him and find solace in his works. It is what gets us back to the theater each and every time they are performed.