The Best Play of 2008, so far

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our-town-hypocrites.jpgI’ve seen a lot of theater everywhere and anywhere so I consider myself a pretty sophisticated, worldly, bordering on the jaded, theater-goer.  I like being jolted, startled, provoked, metaphorically bitch-slapped, left with mouth wide-open, when I go to the theater.  I dislike sentimentality, corny warm-fuzziness, Pollyanna and American pastoral antics, predictability, tidy resolutions.  So I was very perplexed when I first heard that the Hypocrites, one of the most admirably brazen theater companies in Chicago, who staged Sarah Kane’s Psychoses 4.40 as an audience walkaround and placed the actors inside a life-sized aquarium in Maria Irene Fornes’ Mud, had included Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that warhorse drama of small-town Americana, the most produced play in the US every year, often parodied, sometimes derided, as part of its 2007-2008 season.  Our Town?  WTF?  Granted, I have never seen a live production, and know it from its reputation as well as from the old-fashioned 1940 movie starring William Holden as George and Martha Scott as Emily, but hey, I’m “sophisticated, worldly, jaded” – this play was the one thing that made me think twice about purchasing a Hypocrites season subscription, since it felt so contrarian and out-of-place.  But I’ve learned my lesson- never underestimate the intellectual savvy of a group as passionate about theater and as original as the Hypocrites and its Artistic Director, the always surprising Sean Graney.  Oh, and read the fine print, because the subscription brochure did say that this Our Town would be directed by David Cromer, the Chicago theater director who has left the New York theatrical community in seizures and lying prostrate at his feet after successfully transferring the magnificent Adding Machine, A New Musical from Evanston’s Next Theatre to off-Broadway.  The Hypocrites’ Our Town by Thornton Wilder, directed by David Cromer, is, quite simply, the best play I have seen so far this year.

So my friend Joel calls me a “gusher”, and yes I gush unabashedly about the theatrical and artistic experiences that strongly affect me, that leave indelible impacts.  I’m still thinking about this production of Our Town today, several days after I’ve seen it.  Calling it brilliant is really short-changing it – it is a great example about what I like about theater; there is nothing like live theater when it is exceptionally done, because it affects you immediately, viscerally, in the gut, through your heart, but it also haunts you, stays with you, makes you mull and reflect and relive it in your mind over and over again to find different meanings and shadings.  Cromer’s staging strips away the sentimental baggage that has, rightly or wrongly, been attached to Our Town over the years.  More than being a heartfelt story of families and relationships, of celebrating simplicity and community, of “American values”, it is, more clearly now, a profound, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking meditation on what we make of our lives, and how, and should, we stay honest to ourselves.  True to Wilder’s stage directions, there are no costumes, minimal lighting effects, and a set of two tables and four chairs.  All the actors wear their street clothes, use mime to demonstrate little actions such as cooking breakfast or gardening, and deliver very straightforward, naturalistic, but absolutely affecting and dead-on performances (including Cromer, terrific as the matter-of-fact Stage Manager, Stacy Stolz, whom I am an avid admirer of, solid yet achingly sad as George’s mother, and the marvelously emotional but also poignant Jennifer Grace as Emily).  They act (and run, and kiss, and sing) around the audience who are arranged in three rows of runway seating on both sides of the house.   Most of the house lights stay on for the first two acts.  There are no artifices or distractions, so you listen closely to Wilder’s clean, simple, but emotionally-layered words, and pay attention to how the actors meticulously build their characters’ moments and arcs. 

Then Act Three comes and your expectations of this Our Town are subverted, inverted, blasted out the window and thrown into the heavy traffic of Division street outside.  I can’t really give away Cromer’s magnificent, how-did-he-think-of-that directorial choice in the final act, but suffice it to say that “sophisticated, worldly, jaded” me was bawling my eyes out by the end of the show.  Because Our Town, at this point, has now very clearly, pointedly, non-judgmentally reflected my life and my experiences – the wistful choices, the misplaced priorities, the regretted oversights, the what-could-have-beens and what-should-haves, the experiences never shared with my mom who’s passed away or with the friends I have allowed to pass through my life.  Wilder’s words, so truthful and spare, are brought into sharp relief and ironically both illuminated and challenged by Cromer’s stunning Act Three.  The legendary theater director, playwright, and theorist Antonin Artaud said that ” To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.”  Nothing I have seen recently has given life to this statement more vividly or better demonstrated the power of live theatre to move than this Our Town, being performed in the basement of an aged theater in the middle of a still-transitioning West Town.

Our Town is playing at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division Ave., until June 8.  All performances are sold-out so folks who are not holding tickets right now are out of luck.  Check out Chris Jones’s raves here and here, which are partly to blame for the unavailability of tickets.

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2 Responses to “The Best Play of 2008, so far”

  1. Dawn Davis Says:

    just reading your beautifully-written article. i don’t live anywhere near and the show is long over, so nothing is given away, but dying of curiosity and wishing to be inspired… can you tell me what magic directoral choice you were referring to when you stated: “I can’t really give away Cromer’s magnificent, how-did-he-think-of-that directorial choice in the final act, but suffice it to say that “sophisticated, worldly, jaded” me was bawling my eyes out by the end of the show.
    Thank you so much!

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Dawn, thank you very much for reading through my modest arts and culture blog. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to give a more definititve description of David Cromer’s version of “Our Town”, since it will be staged in New York City, off-Broadway, early next year! Another triumph for the Chicago theater community. I hope you can see the production in New York and experience it live, viscerally, because no amount of prose can describe it’s impact.

    http://leisureblogs.chicagotribune.com/the_theater_loop/2008/12/david-cromers-o.html

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