CHICAGOAN OF THE YEAR 2008 | THEATER: Cromer pushes into the directorial spotlight

David Cromer does not run one of Chicago's many famous theaters. A blunt perfectionist with an inclination toward the irascible, he's definitely not known for his skill at the schmooze. And, at 44, he's a bit too long in the tooth for such labels as "young" or "emerging."

But in 2008, the Skokie-born Cromer emerged as Chicago's hottest director. No other Chicago theater artist had this kind of searing impact in a single, life-changing year.

In February, he led the Evanston-based Next Theatre to off-Broadway acclaim, with his brilliantly staged version of a strange little musical based on Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine." The show scored a bucket-load of awards and propelled the New York careers of actors such as Amy Warren and Joel Hatch.

But Cromer's annus mirabilis really fired up with "Our Town" in May.

Nobody expected much from yet another version of the overexposed Thornton Wilder classic, long associated with earnest but sanitized high school productions. The Hypocrites uses non-Equity actors. The show was to be performed in the basement of the Chopin Theatre—a cramped space with notably intrusive pillars.

The production was astonishing.

Cromer excised all shreds of sentimentality from the play and forced his gob-smacked audience to confront its own mortality as surely as it he'd delivered the news that everyone was suffering from a collective terminal disease. Not only did Cromer direct this conceptual wonder, he leveraged his own complicated personality into the central role of the narrator.

It was a performance that (somehow) combined compassion, intelligence and the kind of earnest bluntness that you always want from a physician delivering tough news. The show was a huge hit, selling out and returning from an encore run in the autumn. It is to move off-Broadway early next year.

But by the end of the summer, Cromer had turned to "Picnic." Instead of the energy of off-Loop youngsters, this superlative production of the William Inge classic was staged in the tony surroundings of the Glencoe-based Writers' Theatre. Once again, Cromer used his assets well, delivering a blistering powerful look at the transitional pain and sexual confusions of small-town life in the 1950s. He culled sentiment from a play that was never invested in it (even though a thousand past directors thought it was). He coaxed brilliant performances from his shrewdly chosen cast. And he flipped the play toward the audience, forcing you to focus on your own failures.

"He knows how to take an actor, wean them gently from their safer choices and coax them towards the precipice where great performances always hang in the balance," says Michael Halberstam, the artistic director of Writers' Theatre. "The consequence of this is that his audiences are always drawn into the world of the play and immensely rewarded."

By this fall, word about Cromer was getting out and his well-profiled face was staring up from many publications.

His fall project—"Celebrity Row" by Itamar Moses—wasn't a slam-dunk hit by any means, but this troubled new play at American Theater Company still contained some of the shrewdest staging we'd seen all year.

It was reported last week that Cromer has been hired to direct the high-profile Broadway revivals of " Brighton Beach Memoires" and "Broadway Bound" next fall. That kind of assignment is one that will could well change his life and his career for good.

In 2008, Cromer contributed so very much to the theatrical landscape, the human landscape, of Chicago. In 2009, we'll have to fight to get on his dance card.

cjones5@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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