THE BEAUTIFUL George Schaefer production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" on NBC the other night was one of those rare moments when the members of the television audience are called upon to fully use their individual imaginations.
Radio used to do that, whether you were listening to The Lone Ranger, Fred Allen walking down Allen's Alley, Jack Benny descending to his vault, The Shadow, Orson Welles Mercury Theater, Edward R. Murrow reporting the blitz from London or Red Barber calling the play-by-play from Ebbets Field.
The uncanny aspect of "Our Town" was how Wilder's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize almost 40 years ago, came across as being able to evoke, like few things do on contemporary television, a sense of opening windows on our world.
There is, of course, Wilder's way with words and the way they evoke symbolism. (Many years ago, in London, Wilder talked to me about Joseph Mankiewiez's movie version of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." At one point is discussing how Europeans wore the weight of history better than Americans, Wilder said: "When John Gielgud puts on a toga in the film, he wears it as if it suits him. But imagine how that same toga looks on Marlon Brando.")
But there was something else that mattered greatly in the most recent television version of "Our Town." It was the set. It was, in television terms, as stark as the stage set for "Our Town" when the play first appeared on Broadway. The television set, though different from the original Broadway set, did not stand in the way of exercising our imaginations. Rather, it - plus the script and the superb acting - combined to allow us to look out through the window Wilder had opened for us.
Most stage sets we see on television - whether on situation comedies, dramas, soap operas, game shows or talk shows - tend, either by accident or design, to confine us to limited time and space. (Detective shows get outside the basic set from time to time, but only into the confinement of the streets of San Francisco or New York, or the freeways of Los Angeles.)
The worst offenders, in the sense of using sets to confine rather than to expand our creative processes, are those used on new programs. They box us in, rather than letting us out. They resemble bunkers, where our perceptions are magnified through periscopes. Instead, we need windows from which this planet's diversity can combine with our lively imaginations to enlarge our wonderment - not just confirm our boredom.
It was coincidental but instructive that NBC's production of "Our Town" should appear on the same day a report was released on viewer attitudes toward television. The study by McHugh Hoffman Inc. and KPR Associates spent a good deal of time pointing out that local television news was making audience gains at the expense of network news programs.
What's ironic about this trend is that the viewers making this shift also expressed interest in knowing more from the networks "about the world and events in far-reaching places." Viewers expressed a strong sense of interest in network news providing a greater "look of the world."
My sense of what these viewers are saying is that they think the nightly news programs confine, rather than liberate, our sense of imagination. It is also my guess that part of the problem is in the stage sets. They stand in front of the windows to the world, blocking the view, restricting the lively play of our minds interacting with the mix of news on a global scale.
Anyone who has ever been in a control room during the broadcast of the live event knows the excitement that comes from looking over the shoulders of the producer and director and seeing all the pictures of the world from which they can pick and choose.
The control room may not be - it probably isn't - the kind of set that will achieve for news what the set on "Our Town" achieved for our imaginations in terms of drama. But anything is better than the bunkers from which our news programs now limit our sense of this globe and its diversity.