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‘OurTown:’ Through the Lens of Everyday Anticipatory Anxieties

Playwright Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning work in 1938 is fresh as ever in this new production at the Pasadena Playhouse in co-production with Deaf West Theater.

Jane Kaczmarek and Alexandria Wailes in 'Our Town,' at the centennial Pasadena Playhouse, the Official Theater of the State of California, September 26 - October 22. Photo: Jenny Graham

Ms. Kaczmarek in the role of Stage Manager in this play-within-a-play fully melds American Sign Language (ASL) into the plot line which takes this timeless story to new artistic heights.  This production of ‘Our Town’ also does a fine job of incorporating a multicultural cast to underline the universality of the everyday highs and lows of daily life.

What Does Anticipatory Anxiety have to do with ‘Our Town?’

Anticipatory anxiety flares up several times when our characters confront the facts of their lives, the exits and entrances of life and even death, that have scared humans forever. ‘Our Town’ calms anxiety’s side effects when the fight-flight-or freeze response when facing something that has challenged us in the past. It could be we, like the characters, are entering a new job, going out on a first date, getting married, giving birth to a baby, or experiencing someone else who is having an anxious episode. In other words, the quotidien of life unfolding in ‘Our Town’ is familiar though this play is almost 90 years old.  This fear is known as anticipatory anxiety. Rapid speech, wringing sweaty palms, a racing heart, upset stomach, numbness or tingling, hot flashes or cold chills are the body’s natural ways of preparing for an event. No one is exempt. It’s as if anxiety were catchy and each in the community is potentially susceptible.

It seems we humans are programmed to anticipate the worst, because that is our body’s way of moving away from danger. It’s as though anxiety is another character in this play, ‘Our Town,’ which is why the expressive physical activity of ASL is a perfect match as it deflects from, softens and separates us from whatever the ‘problems’ may be, thus limiting exposure to unsettling anxieties that only worsen the situation. Most of the time when we experience anticipatory anxiety, chances are we may be putting ourselves in novel situations, even when rationally, it is debatable we are about to put ourselves in any real danger.

Anticipatory anxiety, even recurring ones, are completely normal at some point in everyone’s lives. You don’t have to have a psychiatric anxiety disorder or anxiety problems to experience it. Anticipatory anxiety symptoms as “feeling your skin crawl” as you face doing something that scares you. Besides feeling anxious and fearful, you may also experience anger, confusion, hopelessness, loss of control, sadness, moodiness, irritability, guilt, and preoccupation with the threat, to the point where concentrating or making decisions is difficult. If anticipatory anxiety is chronic, you may also find that you’re withdrawing from people and things you enjoy doing, or engaging in other self sabotaging thoughts and behaviors.

‘Our Town’ shows us the only way to get over anticipatory anxiety is to normalize and minimize your feelings by embracing what’s making you fearful rather than backing away; to be cautious while struggling with what is fear inducing. Anxious about growing up, taking risks and facing the consequences, including ultimately, tragically dying young in the play, until the characters achieve acceptance and resignation to the ‘cycle of life.’

The therapeutic message of ‘Our Town,’ is to challenge your fears, face them and then accept in the face of the inevitable doom, that we are all going to die. In this way there is a chance to power through to become less anxious. Our characters get us to ask ourselves how realistic our fears are and remind us to cope with what’s to come. We are reminded that the message of the larger human flow are the ‘Three A’s:’ to accept, adapt, and act. In this way anticipatory anxiety should become more manageable and eventually subside.

Disclaimer Alert: Though attending live theater can reveal insights about life it is not a substitute for therapy. Nothing written in this blog should be construed as advice. If you or someone you know is suicidal, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional or trusted family member or friend to get needed help.

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If you — or someone you know — need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.  

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