Towards the end of Act One of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Mrs. Webb. Mrs. Gibbs, and town gossip Mrs. Soames are returning home from choir practice. Simon Stimson, the choir director, had been drunk that night, and rehearsal ran longer than usual. Early in the scene, Mrs Gibbs has the line
MRS. GIBBS -- Look at that moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather for sure.
I have no idea what the line means, but I have always thought it the finest line from what is, if not the perfect, certainly the most American of American plays. The first act takes place on May 7, 1901. I know nothing about growing potatoes, but I assume that Mrs. Gibbs is thinking it is a good time to plant potatoes, because it would seem to early to be harvesting anything. But what any of that would have to do with the moon remains a mystery to me. Perhaps The Farmer's Almanac of 1901 recommended a full moon in May for potato planting. My grandmother had moon-related notions, but they had mostly to do with medical procedures.
I love the line but I am not comfortable with that "Tsk-tsk-tsk." I assume that a performer will either ignore it, or swallow it, or turn it into a slight shake of the head. No actor is going to carefully enunciate Tsk-tsk-tsk. No one except possibly the sixteen-year-old girl who is playing this fifty-year-old woman in her high school production. This is her first major role and she is nervous as hell. She has determined that her performance will be word perfect, and from the first rehearsal, with book in hand, she has faithfully rendered the line in its entirety. "Look at the moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather for sure." Like myself she has no idea what the line means, but she is too uncomfortable to ask.
Sitting in the empty school auditorium during rehearsals, her director, the school's speech and drama teacher, has heard the Tsk tsk tsk and assumed from early rehearsals that the girl will get past her awkward reading. But even when the cast goes off book, she still hears it and writes in her notes, "MG no tsk." But it's a note she always skips since there are larger issues to be addressed.
At final dress rehearsal she realizes it is still there, and she makes the note again, "MG NO TSKTSKTSK." But dress rehearsal runs long and several of the kids have curfews. She rushes through notes, skipping it again, then telling everyone they are going to do a great job and that she will see them tomorrow. Break a leg.
On opening night the director sits on the back row of the packed auditorium. Things are going well. George doesn't have trouble with his ladder, the audience is laughing in the right spots, and she knows they will be in tears for Act 3. Then, while appreciating the surprisingly evocative night-time lighting effect and thinking how really good the guys are that do the tech work, she hears it.
"Look at that moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather for sure."
But there is only the one more performance the following night, and she is through giving notes.