Theatre Review: ‘Our Suburb’ at Theater J

The cast of 'Our Suburb.'  Photo by Stan Barouh.

The cast of ‘Our Suburb.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, which first premiered in 1938, has left a lasting mark on American drama. Its minimalist, meta-theatrical style and its keen insight into the life of small-town America reverberate even now, 75 years later, and nowhere more so than at Theater J, where Darrah Cloud’s Our Suburb is currently playing.

…thoughtful, powerful work.

Cloud’s story of 1970s suburban America openly acknowledges that it takes much of its structure, style, and inspiration from Wilder’s play, going so far as to name one of the major (female) characters Thornton. Our Suburb is about an altogether different issue in America, however. Skokie, Illinois, where the play is set, was home to a prominent post-war Jewish community, a community thrown into turmoil in the late 1970s when the National Socialist Party of America tried to march on the Chicago suburb.

Jjana Valentiner, Barbara Rappaport, Sarah Taurchini, Joshua Dick. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jjana Valentiner, Barbara Rappaport, Sarah Taurchini, Joshua Dick. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Cloud captures perfectly the sense of isolation and stagnation that suburban living can reveal in its residents. It can be seen most prominently in the play’s two major families.  The Majors have the dreamy daughter, Thornton (Sarah Taurchini); the educated but alcoholic housewife, Mrs. Major (Kathryn Kelley); and the former soldier turned businessman, Mr. Major (Jim Jorgensen).  The Edelmans have the butcher father, Herm Edelman (Michael Willis); the frustrated butcher’s assistant, Ricky (Joshua Dick); the law student mother, Mrs. Edelman (Barbara Pinolini); and the old Holocaust survivor grandmother, Mrs. Witcoff (Barbara Rappaport).

Predictably, Ricky and Thornton fall in love, or possibly lust, given their ages, and while it is the patently superficial romance of youth, its purpose could not be less like Romeo and Juliet. Their families are accepting, if a little amused, and both teenagers reveal ambitions that extend far beyond the suburban monochrome of Skokie: Thornton professes a desire to study “medicine, law, the environment, or art” while Ricky wants to abandon slicing brisket for the smoke-filled world of jazz music. The irony and sadness of the play comes partly from the fact that neither achieves the dreams of their youth.

Kathryn Keller and James J. Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Kathryn Keller and James J. Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Fundamentally though, Our Suburb is about choice and the price for the freedom to make those choices. Mrs. Edelman, studying to be a lawyer, with her admiration for the liberties that the United States affords, must counter the panic of her mother, who survived a world where an increasing lack of freedom was devastating. The Nazis are allowed their right to free speech, even defended by a Jewish lawyer from the ACLU. Mrs. Major chooses to remain in an unhappy marriage, denying herself a life outside the constraints of the supporting role of WASP wife and mother. And, in the end, Thornton chooses to take a bus home alone from a party when Ricky is unable to pick her up.

I will say though, that if slightly postmodern and gloriously meta-theatrical drama is not your forte, then this is probably not the best play for you. If, however, you enjoy a fourth wall smashed to pieces–by all means. The Stage Manager (Jjana Valentiner) introduces the play by trying to test the lighting–it takes a little while to realize that her role is not that of an actual stage manager but narrator and occasional performer. Her wry commentary, casual demeanor, and narration featuring old-school slides of Skokie itself are some of the best pieces to come out of this thoughtful, powerful work.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot of Our Town, on which Our Suburb is loosely based, the third act may seem peculiar, being full of the reflections of a dead person and the Stage Manager playing a role similar to that of the Ghost of Christmas Future. While poignant, in the story of a suburb in the midst of a cultural conflict it feels somewhat out of place.

Running Time: approximately 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Our Suburb’s world premiere continues at Theater J, 16th and Q Streets, NW, Washington, DC, through January 12, 2014.  Tickets can be purchased online.