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


Thornton Wilder in 1935

Born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin, of Republican stock, Wilder grew up in China and California, and later lived in small New England towns while studying and teaching. By 1926, he had published his first novel, and his first play had been produced off-Broadway. Over the years, Wilder’s work retained a radical edge and won many prizes, including three Pulitzers—the first in 1928 for his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; the second in 1938 for Our Town; and the third in 1942 for his radical play The Skin of Our Teeth. But it was the monumental success of Our Town that really put Wilder on everyone’s map.

Despite opening to mixed reviews, Our Town broke house records on Broadway. “Thornton Wilder drew a line in the theatrical sand using a bare stage and a couple of ridiculous props ‘for those who think they have to have scenery,’” Tappan Wilder says, quoting his uncle on the play’s artistic radicalism. Moving away from the realism that dominated many stages, his uncle “wrote a drama that celebrated the no less tensile strength of imagination and memory.” Starting in the years after World War II, however, Our Town became the great high-school play, as Tappan Wilder notes. Certainly, the play’s simple staging helped—it was cheap to produce. But Tappan Wilder points out that the play was considered a safe celebration of American values, and as such it was appropriated by conservatives during the years when anything “un-American” was dangerously taboo. By 1955, Our Town had been adapted for television with Frank Sinatra singing Sammy Cahn’s Love and Marriage, a hit song that takes its title from the play’s second act. “The cost of the forties and fifties and sixties was a dumbing down, if you will,” says Tappan Wilder, “a sentimentalization of Our Town.”

It’s easy to understand why the play has been everything to everyone and so easily stretched into so many shapes. On one level, Our Town is a simple story of the Gibbs and Webb families of Grover’s Corners and the high-school romance and marriage of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, a pairing that draws in and affects others in the town. By the third act, Emily has died and joined the deceased inhabitants of her town as they try to make sense of birth, life, love, and death. This epic sweep turns Our Town into a meditation on families, generations, and community, generously peppered with the Stage Manager’s arid commentary.

Despite its simplicity, Our Town has an embracing universality that carries across the course of lifetimes. As the Stage Manager explains at the beginning of Act II, “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about.”

Penelope Niven, who is writing a biography of Thornton Wilder, says, “In almost all of his work he’s looking at the particular juxtaposed [with] the universal. . . . That’s the key to Our Town.” The playwright, she adds, is “thinking about the individual and the human experience, the repetition by millions and millions of people of the fundamental patterns of human existence.”

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David Cromer’s recent production opened with Cromer himself, straight-faced, in a black T-shirt and jeans, with a yellow legal pad under his arm, striding across the grim basement of the Chopin Theater, passing the structural columns that make watching any performance there a challenge. He played the Stage Manager, and his actors were young and wore jeans. By locating them in contemporary times—“Mrs. Webb is the hippie mom,” Cromer notes, and “Mrs. Gibbs is the yuppie mom”—he lifted the action out of Grover’s Corners and located it firmly in any 21st-century community.

Part of this derived from Cromer’s dark vision of the play. “It’s not ‘everything’s fine in Grover’s Corners.’ Everything is terrible,” Cromer points out. “The marriages are difficult.” The citizens are in denial about their alcoholic church organist, who eventually kills himself. The parents can’t tell their children what’s really in their hearts. The young heroine, less than a decade after becoming a bride, dies in childbirth.

Cromer stripped away the sentimentality built up over decades of productions that mired Our Town in longing for the early 20th century, but he didn’t sacrifice the sentiment of the play. “We were so obsessed with how dark it was that we tried to get away from the sappiness,” Cromer says. Doing that made him and his cast and crew realize how sweet the play was.

Richard Christiansen, the former chief critic and senior writer for the Chicago Tribune and an admirer of Cromer’s production, acknowledges that Cromer took “a little of the Christian spirit out of the play, and it is a very white-bread Christian sort of a play.” But Christiansen particularly commends Cromer’s preservation of Our Town’s humanism, and his casting of “raw, untested, non-Equity actors. They were all neighborhood people. There were no city slickers in this show.” That, Christiansen notes, “added to the feeling of intimacy and just-plain-folks that the play wants you to have.”

Anna Shapiro, who is directing the Lookingglass production with Jessica Thebus (and featuring David Schwimmer as George Gibbs), says she was attracted by Wilder’s artistic radicalism, which offered a provocative match to her own progressive politics. “This guy was an incredible revolutionary,” Shapiro says. And she was moved by Wilder’s comment: “The climax of this play needs only five feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

“This sounds weird coming from me, the princess of darkness in terms of what I like to direct,” Shapiro says, “but I think sentiment well handled is really redeeming for an audience member because we are sentimental. You do cry when you see Our Town unless you’re just dead [because] sentiment is actually an incredibly potent thing. It’s about caring for the world. I think when people use the word ‘sentimental,’ they just mean that it was bad and they should just say it was bad.”

Thebus, Shapiro’s co-director, argues that people see the play differently at different times in their lives. “I think the play is about people getting older. And the play begins to become illuminated when you shine the light of your own life on it.” Thebus has taught Our Town to her drama classes at the U. of C. and Northwestern University for a decade and has witnessed its enduring power. “Students start out being bored by it,” she says. “When they start memorizing it and acting it, they’re in tears.”

Weeks before rehearsals began, Thebus predicted that the Lookingglass production would be “in dialogue with the period in which the story of George and Emily is set, but does not take place solely within that time period. It is a sketch of New Hampshire, a sketch of that time, and a sketch of the theatre.” Both Thebus and Shapiro think the play is partly about acting. And all three directors agree that one can never get enough of Our Town. “You can’t see that play too often,” says Thebus. Cromer quotes a friend and producer who believes that “Our Town should be playing everywhere every day so that people can just walk in and see it when they need to.” (Plans are under way for Cromer’s Our Town, produced by Scott Morfee, to open in February at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York.)

Shapiro admits that she is a bit nervous about offering her production so close to Cromer’s because she is so competitive. In fact, there has been a case of jitters all around. Cromer, who has been a good friend of Shapiro’s for 20 years and knows Thebus, was skittish when the two showed up to see his Hypocrites production. “You think that’s not nerve-racking?” he asks. “And they sat right in the front row.”

The directors don’t happen to be in complete agreement about Our Town. “It was fun to see David’s play,” says Shapiro, “and I asked him a lot of questions, but, to be honest with you, I don’t think [Our Town] is about the same things that David’s production is about.” Cromer cut some of the moments that she and Thebus see as thematically central, such as when “the Stage Manager tells everyone in the audience to close their eyes and remember the first time they were in love. These shared experiences are very provocative to us.” While she and Thebus stress the notion of community and generations, Cromer fixed his directorial gaze on appreciating the small beauties of life. But there is a lot of overlap among the three on Our Town’s universal appeal. When asked what she wants audiences to take away from her production, Shapiro deadpans, “That it was way better than David’s.”

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Photograph: Associated Press


Tim Curtis as Emily’s father with Westerfer


While the principals say it is coincidence that Hypocrites and Lookingglass decided to take on Our Town at about the same time, this play seems to irresistibly draw directors. Partly it’s their need to reinvent and make a mark on a masterpiece. But partly it’s our times as we wrestle with who we are at the turn of the new century. Our Town, set from 1901 to 1913, does that, too. What are families? What are communities? The characters in Our Town extend their hands to us, across a century, inviting us to join them on their journey to answer those existential questions.

Shapiro argues that Our Town manages to be timeless and timely all at once. “We need to think about how we deal with one another when we’re in the shared space,” she says. “That ‘shared space’ is humans who are alive at this moment. In Our Town, that is gently made literal in this little town.”

Tappan Wilder says his uncle was surprised people thought his play was about a little New Hampshire town. He quotes his uncle as saying, “My play’s about everybody, and everybody’s in my play.”

Rebecca Gibbs’s comment to her older brother, George, at the end of Act I seems to sum up that inclusiveness. In describing a letter mailed to an ill friend by her minister, Rebecca tells her brother of the address the envelope bore: “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; . . . Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” What amazes and delights them both is that “the postman brought it just the same.”

Such small acts, in such universal circumstances, do indeed connect us all to the beauty that is our shared life.

Photograph: Emily Coughlin