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'Our Suburb' Responds To An American Theater Classic

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"Our Suburb" premieres at Theater J on December 19.
Courtesy of Theater J
"Our Suburb" premieres at Theater J on December 19.

Thornton Wilder’s classic play, Our Town is a tried-and-true theatrical tradition that’s been carried on, on countless stages nationwide, since 1938. 75 years later, playwright Darrah Cloud is putting a new spin on that old tradition, with her world-premiere show, Our Suburb.

Our Suburb takes place not in Grovers Corners in the early 20th century, but in Skokie, Illinois, in 1976 and 1977 — the same time as that famous attempted march by the neo-Nazis, which figures heavily in the play.

Judith Ivey is directing the play at Theater J in Northwest Washington. She says what drew her to the play is how Darrah Cloud took Our Town, and reinvented it.

“A lot of the themes she brought up are a little more modern concerns in our world,” Ivey says. “Namely that the suburb was supposed to be the safe haven when everyone left the big cities. And sure enough the suburbs had just as much danger and depravity as in the cities.”

Similarly, she says, “in Our Town, Thornton Wilder says [with] these sweet, sleepy little towns, there’s a lot more going on than we choose to recognize.”

Ivey says Cloud throws in even more complexity with the two main characters: Thornton Majors and Ricky Edelman, who meet and fall in love on a city bus, a la Emily and George at the soda fountain in Our Town.

“And Ricky is from a Jewish family, and Thornton is from a Christian family,” Ivey says. “And here they fall in love and what does that mean for the families? So they’re dealing with a lot of levels that Thornton Wilder never dealt with, really.”

Another similarity — and difference — between the two plays is the role of the stage manager. Traditionally, this head-narrator role has been played by an older man. Not this time.

“But our stage manager is a young woman,” says Ivey. “And she reveals she’s going to play the two younger sisters, one in each family, because Ms. Cloud wrote way too many characters for a theater the size of Theater J to afford to hire!”

Something else that fascinates Ivey is the way Cloud’s play “has a more active thrust rather than reflective. A lot of Our Town is looking back. Literally, [Emily] comes back from the dead and says I want to go back, and picks her 16th birthday. In this case, [Thornton] comes back and wants to go forward and see the future.”

Ivey says she has a special appreciation for how “daring” Darrah Cloud is.

“It’s not ‘Let’s just see what Wilder did and what’s the 1977 suburban matchup,’” Ivey explains, but rather, “’let’s throw the cards in the air and let them fall differently and ask different questions.’”

Our Suburb runs at Theater J December 19, 2013 – January 12, 2014.

[Music: "Our Town" by Aaron Copland from The Copland Collection]

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