May 3, 2008
David Cromer has directed some distinguished Chicago productions in his career, including Next Theatre's "The Adding Machine," for which he just snagged a bucket-load of award nominations in New York; "Orson's Shadow" at Steppenwolf; and "Come Back Little Sheba" with at Shattered Globe.
But I think his brilliantly revisionist and astounding new production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" by The Hypocrites is his masterwork to date. And it takes place in a Wicker Park basement for 20 bucks a ticket.
In the jaw-dropping third act, which makes some truly shocking and inspired conceptual choices that are best experienced without foreknowledge, I found myself speaking the words "Oh, my God" to no one. And despite eccentricities, I'm not that given to inappropriate interjections. It's just that this "Our Town" hit me that hard.
If your tastes run to shows that make you stare right in the face of your own mortality and inability to prioritize what and who really matters in life, your own petty obsessions and jealousies, then cancel whatever you're doing tonight and go and see this show. And, to save you an e-mail after, you're welcome.
"He's going on like this about Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town?'|" you must be thinking. "That hoary small-town staple of the high school repertory?" Ah, but you've never seen it done like this before. Here is what Cromer (who plays the stage manager along with directing) does: He removes every last shred of sentimentality from the piece, replacing it with a blend of cynicism and simple human truth. But--and here's the rub--he does so without removing the vitality and sincerity. Like many great revivals (the current "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center is in my mind), it's neither archly conceptual nor a subversion of a great American play, but an explication for the modern age. I'm telling you, it's that revelatory a show.
Wilder, of course, deserves much of the credit. I kept thinking of the last episode of "Six Feet Under," when Alan Ball whisked us forward to learn the mostly undignified fates of the characters we'd come to love. Wilder did much the same in 1938, and he was smart enough to do so in the middle of the play.
In Cromer's hands, it's as if you're being whisked in and out of your own grave. His modern-dress "Our Town" is staged in and around the audience. You spend two hours thinking about communities and what we've done to them, as well as about how parents in small towns risk imbuing their children with the tyranny of low expectations.
The performances aren't flashy, or the work of hugely experienced actors, but most of them are pitch perfect, nonetheless. Tim Curtis does superb work as Mr. Webb; Stacy Stoltz is a deeply emotional Mrs. Gibbs; Jennifer Grace is a yearning, believable Emily. In the third act, the actors seem to come out of the floor and surround you with their sadness and stoicism.
Cromer calibrates "Our Town" with clear-eyed intelligence. You see the beauties of small-town America and its limitations, laid out before you as directly and powerfully as the Chicago theater can muster.
"Our Town" When: Through June 8 Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Running time: 2 hours Tickets: $20 at 773-472-7352
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