BWW Reviews: OUR SUBURB at Theater J Evokes Thought and Emotion
I'll second that.
Our Suburb is a thoughtful rumination on a tumultuous moment in recent history told through the template of Thornton Wilder's iconic Our Town. Playwright Darrah Cloud melds her personal experience of growing up in Skokie, Illinois when would-be Nazis threatened to march down the main street, within a variation and themes structure using Wilder's play as a road map. Cloud takes the same themes of family, love and death, and throws in the idea of safety and security.
Cloud's Our Suburb is a leaner play than Wilder's which is no less poignant than the original.
As the title implies, we are introduced to a suburb in much the same manner as Our Town. A business-like Stage Manager - the engaging Jjana Valentiner - is our tour guide to the location, this time the very really Skokie, Illinois. Just outside of Chicago, Skokie was thought to have been safer than the big city. When the leader of a Neo-Nazi group applied to march through Skokie in the fall of 1976, the quiet suburb did not seem as safe.
History records the march, thankfully, never happened but the facts of the case and the threat of such an event rippled through the community. Skokie was a haven for a diverse population with a contingent of Holocaust survivors and their families, such as the Edelman's. They own a local butcher shop, run by Mr. Edelman who is trying to teach his son Ricky the business. Mrs. Edelman is studying to be a lawyer and helps manage her aging mother. Mrs. Edelman and her mother Mrs. Witkof are the only members of their immediate family to survive the Holocaust.
Their neighbors, the Major's represent another aspect of Skokie's residents. A stoic World War II veteran, Mr. Majors is a salesman with the stay-at-home wife who busies herself with various clubs, and innumerable cocktails. Their oldest child is Thornton has dreams of writing and getting as far away from Skokie as she can.
Slightly romanticized yet wholly believable, each family holds a key place in the fabric of Skokie and the greater community of the middle-late 20th Century. We see each family facing the threat of the Nazi marchers, some more directly than others. We also see them face each other, also some more directly than others.
Like Wilder's piece, the lives of the two families intersect along the same lines. Thornton and Ricky's childhood friendship blooms into a sweet romance leading to marriage, this time with the added color of a Gentile girl and a Jewish boy. Sarah Taurchini brings an earnest determination to the strong-willed Thornton. As Ricky, Joshua Dick is the picture of a dreamer caught between what he wants and the pull of his family obligations. Bell's scenes with Taurchini are sweet, sexy, and wonderful.
I don't think it's revealing too much to say as the Emily stand-in, Thornton faces death and doesn't take the experience lightly. In Our Suburb, Cloud makes her death echo with the everyday fears of modern parents, which makes her death even more tragic in the end.
As is often the case at Theater J, casting is in prime shape throughout the entire ensemble, in addition to Taurchini, Dick, and Valentiner. Jim Jorgenson (Mr. Major), Kathryn Kelley (Mrs. Major), Barbara Pinolini (Mrs. Edelman), Michael Willis (Mr. Edelman), and Barbara Rappaport (Mrs. Witkoff) each bring truth to their roles and seem like people we probably knew in times gone by. As delivery man and single dad, L.C. Minor, James J. Johnson also provides a quiet presence.
Director Judith Ivey allows her actors to focus on the story-telling. No gimmicks or tricks, just simple stagecraft that illuminates and provokes equal amounts of thought and emotion.
Life is music, one character offers. Thanks for reminding us of that Ms. Cloud.
OUR SUBURB by Darrah Cloud, a world premiere
Running time: two hours, with one intermission
Through January 12, 2014
Directed by Judith Ivey. CAST: Joshua Dick, James J. Johnson, Jim Jorgenson, Kathryn Kelley, Barbara Pinolini, Barbara Rappaport, Sarah Taurchini, Jjana Valentiner, Michael Willis. PRODUCTION: Scenic Design, Samina Vieth; Lighting Design, Dan Covey; Sound Design, Eric Shimelonis; Costume Design, Deb Sivigny; Props design, Joshua Rosenblum; Production Stage Manager, Erin Patrick; Dramaturg, Randy Baker.