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Talk of Our Town

Two Chicago theatres have liberated Thornton Wilder’s warhorse of a play from its nostalgic conventions to deliver productions both radical and real. Why now?

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Stairway to heaven: Ian Westerfer as George Gibbs and Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb in the provocative play by The Hypocrites

One of the most radical and provocative plays staged in Chicago this year starts with these simple but firm directions from the playwright:

“No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half light. Presently the STAGE MANAGER, hat on and pipe in mouth, enters.”

The directions then instruct him to place two tables with three chairs each at opposite ends of the stage. Then the Stage Manager speaks: “This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder.”

If you are startled by the notion that Our Town, that warhorse of high-school drama departments and victim of faux nostalgia, could be radical and provocative, think again. Seven decades after this Pulitzer Prize winner made its debut on Broadway, a new generation of hot young Chicago directors is rediscovering the theatrical adventure and raw emotion behind this most American of dramas. Those directors are liberating Our Town from its setting, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, in the early years of the last century, and using Wilder’s often startling work to examine our sense of community today.

“We had to figure out how to make something that used to be innovative, and has become vocabulary, be innovative again,” explains David Cromer, whose production of Our Town for The Hypocrites was such a box-office hit last spring that it was remounted in the fall. Taking his cue from those opening stage directions, Cromer decided that Wilder wanted the drama “stripped of artifice” and delivered a production set in contemporary times and played simply and directly.

In February, two other acclaimed Chicago directors—Anna D. Shapiro and Jessica Thebus—will also tackle Our Town with ensemble members from the Lookingglass Theatre Company. (The show opens for previews on February 11th.) “Even in its most infantile iteration, it tears me up,” says Shapiro, who kept her softer side well hidden as the director of Tracy Letts’s scathing August, Osage County.

Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew and his literary executor, says these “imaginative productions add up to a golden age for the work.” Through the years, he says, he has watched the drama become “a chocolate milk shake, something very sentimental and soft.” In fact, “Our Town is like the martini over time. It just gets drier and drier.”

For Chicago, there is a nice circularity in seeing the play return to its roots in these local productions. Thornton Wilder taught comparative literature at the University of Chicago in the thirties—lured by his Oberlin College buddy Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was radically reinventing the U. of C.—and conceived Our Town here (though the play was written while Wilder was in New Hampshire and Switzerland). “He fell in love all over again with America through his experiences in Chicago,” his nephew says. “He considered himself a Midwesterner, and he loved the people. He’s singing their praises in Our Town.”

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Photo illustration by Josue Evilla

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