Our Suburb is the decidedly nonfictional town of Skokie, Illinois, where playwright Darrah Cloud’s version of the Webbs and the Gibbs are the Majors, a relentlessly right-thinking gentile family on the verge of dissolution, and the Edelmans, Holocaust survivors who have come to America and won safety and prosperity. They live, love and die against the backdrop of the most bizarre event in Skokie history: the effort of the confused neo-Nazi Frank Collin, whose father was a Jewish survivor of the death camps, to stage a Nazi parade down Skokie’s Main Street. And there is a Stage Manager (Jjana Valentiner).
That Cloud so resolutely recreates the tropes that Thornton Wilder conceived for the fictional town of Grover’s Crossing in Our Town may in part reflect her obvious affection for Skokie, where she grew up, but it also both universalizes and particularizes our experiences. Skokie, with its abundance of fast-food palaces, cookie-cutter houses, and dearth of cultural experiences, could be any 1970s suburb. And the dilemmas of the Majors and the Edelmans, in broad outline, are no different than the dilemmas of the Webbs and the Gibbs seventy years previous: love and the need for love; self-doubt; the struggle between fear and optimism; the preciousness of life and the ubiquity of tragedy. The Majors and the Edelmans could be the Webbs and the Gibbs, reset in the future.
Except for this: Mrs. Edelman (Barbara Pinolini), who is studying to become a lawyer, and her mother, Mrs. Witcoff (Barbara Rappaport), were the only members of their large family to survive the death camps. Mr. Edelman (Michael Willis) has taken them to Skokie, which they believe is the safest place in the world for them, and he now owns a successful kosher butcher shop. Their son Ricky (Joshua Dick), a high school senior, mostly likes to get high.
They share yards, separated by a high (but not unscalable) fence, with the Majors. Mr. Majors (Jim Jorgenson) is a grim, cold man; he professes all the right beliefs, but except for a mighty furnace of anger, he is dead inside. His wife (Kathryn Kelly) is a woman of intelligence and talent who longs to use it in some constructive way, but she is limited to her housewifely duties, and has become a lush in response. Their daughter Thornton (!) (Sarah Taurchini) is an ambitious and dutiful high school senior with a 3.9 GPA who aspires to a career in law, or in medicine. She is not, however, above playing a little Twister after dropping acid.
Of course, Ricky and Thornton fall in love – not just love but head-banging lust, of the kind and nature that keeps Thornton’s bratty little sister (Valentiner) awake all night. The families approve. (There is not a single nanosecond of gentile-Jew conflict in this relationship; the romance between Ricky and Thornton is as celebrated by their parents as the romance between George Gibbs and Emily Webb was by theirs). There seems to be only one obstacle to their permanent happiness: Thornton wants to go away – far away – to college in order to escape her increasingly dysfunctional family, and Ricky – not really college material – is needed to run the family butcher shop.
Fate intervenes, and not in a good way. One of the most powerful effects of recasting Our Town seventy years later is that it highlights how the way we look at death has changed. In the original, George’s mother dies of pneumonia; Emily’s younger brother dies of a burst appendix; and Emily herself dies in childbirth. Premature death is heartbreaking, but it is inevitable part of the ebb and flow of life. But by the 1970s we had figured out how to defeat these diseases, and our greatest danger had become our fellow man. Premature death is now more than sad, it is outrageous, and needs to be suppressed at all costs.
And thus we have the most stimulating part of the play: the debate between Mrs. Edelman and her mother about the Nazi march in Skokie. It is the same debate between freedom and security which plays out today. Mrs. Edelman has a firm grasp of Constitutional law, including in particular the First Amendment; Mrs. Witcoff has a firm grasp of history, including the moment in Germany when what eventually became the Holocaust began with a few parades.
Cloud crafts her story with great delicacy and care and gets every nuance right. She tracks Wilder’s original with unerring accuracy (even finding a parallel to Joe Crowell, who delivers the papers to the Gibbs and the Webbs in James J. Johnson as L.C. Minor, an entrepreneur who delivers groceries to the two families and enlists Mrs. Majors’ help in writing his letters to the editor.) But she does so with wit, a sense of purpose, and an irresistible impulse toward high drama. Highly Recommended
Closes January 12, 2014
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission and 1 pause
Tickets: $45 – $50
Wednesdays thru Sundays
One of her best impulses was her reimagining of the Stage Manager. Wilder’s was a gentle, solemn fellow, but the character Valentiner inhabits is a hoot. Her Stage Manager is a tough-talking, wisecracking theater veteran with enough verve to morph into little sisters for Ricky and Thornton (“the playwright wrote too many characters for a small theater to pay for,” she explains, “and I’m not getting paid extra”) and enough authority to morph into the angel of death when she needs to do so. Our Town was a pioneer in breaking down the fourth wall, but Our Suburb turns metatheater into a running gag, and an excellent device to move the play along. Valentiner is superb at this, and her talent for improv serves her particularly well. “You don’t want to get me upset,” she warns, scurrying the audience members to their seats at the start of the second Act. Her eyes cut across the theater and laser some hapless laggard. “You too, Mr. Roth,” she tells Theater J’s Artistic Director.
Cloud and Theater J are benefitted by a wonderfully crisp production under the knowing hand of Director Judith Ivey. Taurchini and Dick are marvelous teenagers, absolutely convincing in spite of the fact that Dick normally plays characters who are about forty years old. (Valentiner, too, has the bratty little sister thing down perfectly). It is easy to play heavy drinkers for laughs, but Kathryn Kelly successfully plays Mrs. Major for tears. She is not so much addicted to alcohol as dissolved by it, and we see it in her washed-out expression, her floppy gestures, and the hopeless way she denies her melancholy.
And Jim Jorgensen is perfect as her husband. He says not a single angry word to his wife and only a few disparaging ones, and yet you know, by his bearing and his expression, that this is a man who would drive any woman to drink. He also has a brief, chilling cameo whose significance will not become apparent until the play’s end. Jorgensen, who I know in real life to be a cheerful, friendly, easygoing fellow, remains the gold standard in Washington theater for the portrayal of evil.
Our Suburb, a world premiere by Darrah Cloud. Directed by Judith Ivey, assisted by Jo Sullivan. Featuring Joshua Dick, James J. Johnson, Jim Jorgensen, Kathryn Kelley, Barbara Pinolini, Barbara Rappaport, Sarah Taurchini, Jjana Valentiner and Michael Willis. Scenic design by Samina Vieth, Lighting design by Dan Covey, Sound design by Eric Shimelonis, Castume design by Deb Sivigny, Props design by Joshua Rosenblum. Erin Patrick, assisted by Madison Bahr and Kara Sparling, was the stage manager. Produced by Theater J, Reviewed by Tim Treanor.