Act I begins with no curtain; the Stage Manager simply appears onstage and brings in two tables, some chairs, and a bench. As the house lights dim, he speaks directly to the audience, telling them who wrote and directed the play, as well as necessary facts about Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, "just across the Massachusetts line " He announces the time as being just before dawn on May 7, 1901. He delineates the layout of the town, pointing out six churches, the railroad tracks, the town hall and jail, the post office, and Polish Town, where the minority families live. He is able to look into the future and announce when the first automobile will reach town.
The Stage Manager points to an imaginary spot downstage and explains that Doc Gibbs lives in this house. At this time, two trellises are pushed onstage for "those who think they have to have scenery " Mrs. Gibbs' garden, he explains, is in the corner of the stage. Next door is the Webbs' house and garden. It is a nice town, the Stage Manager explains, even though "nobody very remarkable ever came out of it " Tombstone dates, he adds, go back to the 1670s and 80s.
The Stage Manager catches sight of Doc Gibbs coming down the street and comments that another day is beginning in "our town " The paper boy is now getting up, and Shorty Hawkins is preparing to flag the 5:45 train for Boston.
In this play, Wilder deliberately violates traditional theatrical devices. First, he does not use a curtain or reveal a prearranged stage setting. Instead, the Stage Manager provides a few pieces of furniture and begins addressing the audience directly. Although it is true that this particular town is set in New Hampshire, it represents the typical American small town. Viewers can thus imagine any town that they have experienced.
The reader should have a mental picture of what the Stage Manager looks like. He should be relaxed and low-key, dress quite ordinarily, and resemble a citizen of a small town.
The absence of the typical methods of exposition is a marked departure from tradition. Usually, the playwright contrives some scene which reveals to the audience the events which have preceded the immediate action of the play. In this play, the Stage Manager, like the chorus of a Greek drama, supplies a direct link between viewer and action. He is unbound by time or place and speaks of past, present, and future as though they were all of one piece. For this reason, the play lacks suspense.
Wilder also breaks with traditional concepts of dramatic illusion. In the usual play, the dramatist hopes that the audience will become emotionally involved in imaginary events and will forget the surrounding theater. Wilder makes no effort to convince the audience that the events of the play are real. In fact, he constantly reminds the audience that they are in a theater watching actors perform in a make-believe world. Wilder's purpose is to present, as far as possible, an enactment of a typical day in a small town.
Wilder carefully introduces the houses of the two main families whose actions occupy a major portion of the play. Note that Mr. Webb and Doc Gibbs represent the professions of journalism and medicine.