Avid and discerning theatergoers seeking a fresh take on a beloved classic will not find a more rewarding gift this time of year than Our Suburb, brilliantly directed by Judith Ivey, which just opened like a wonderful present at Theater J. This beautiful brand-new play—which playwright Darrah Cloud modeled loosely on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—is so full of honest human heart, humor, hurt, and hope that it is destined to become a classic for all seasons.
Cloud borrows Wilder’s metatheatrical devices (minimalist set and props, actors as if in rehearsal), three-act thematic structure (stages of ordinary life in a small town), and a Stage Manager (played with winning wit and warmth by Jjana Valentiner), who affably sets the scene for us: The place is Skokie, Illinois, and the time is late 1970s, a year when Christmas and Chanukah happened (“for dramatic purposes”) to coincide.
We meet two neighboring families: the Edelmans, who are Jewish, and the Majors, who are Christian. Besides serving as our guide to the play’s scenes and time shifts, the Stage Manager is double-cast as the youngest child in both families. We see her sibling tiffs with her Major sister Thornton (played with smart sensitivity by Sarah Taurchini) and her Edelman brother Ricky (played with buoyant charm by Joshua Dick). Soon she is comically singing along to two different tunes from the two families’ religious heritages. With such gentle humor, the play sets its stage for the profound import to come.
Before long Thornton and Ricky are falling in young love. Significantly the interfaith aspect of their teenage romance is not a point of tension either for Thornton’s homemaker mother and traveling-sales-rep father (Kathryn Kelley and Jim Jorgensen, both first-rate) or Ricky’s graduate-law-student mother and kosher-butcher father (Barbara Pinolini and Michael Willis, equally superb). Only Ricky’s grandmother, Mrs. Witcoff (played movingly by Barbara Rappaport), ever even brings up the subject. She quizzes Thornton whether she will convert if they get married, which utterly embarrasses Ricky—then delights when Thornton politely relishes the intestine-based kishkes that make Ricky and his sister gag. We learn why the issue of religious identification matters deeply to Mrs. Witcoff. Alone in all her family, she and her daughter survived the Holocaust. And her anguished memory cannot but persist.
Much mentioned in advance publicity for Our Suburb is the fact the play is set in the period when a Neo-Nazi group threatened to march on Skokie, a town home to more Holocaust survivors than any other in America. Don’t go expecting an earnest docudrama, however. The play’s characters do react to the appalling events unfolding offstage, but always in intriguing, specific, and illuminating ways.
Mrs. Edelman, who has gone back to school and become fond of the First Amendment, attends community meetings and argues that in America such freedom means safety. Mrs. Witcoff flatly scoffs at that reasoning; permitting the Nazis to march “will hurt us,” she says, observing the obvious. (She also notes the bitter irony that Aryeh Neier, who in real life threw the weight of the ACLU behind the Neo-Nazis, thereby throwing her annihilated family under the bus, was himself a Jew). Meanwhile Mr. Majors, a World War II veteran who fought Hitler’s forces not for naught, sensibly gets out a gun.
It took me a while to realize what Cloud is up to here.
There’s also a whole other story line going on in Our Suburb centering on an African-American neighbor named L.C. Minor (played with understated simplicity and affecting grace by James J. Johnson). We first meet L.C. delivering groceries to the two families, who greet him familiarly and with thanks (though Mrs. Witcoff keeps referring to him by a tactless Yiddishism even as her daughter attempts to correct her). Next we learn L.C. is a would-be op-ed essayist whom Mrs. Major helps wordsmith. (His conservative blacks-should-pick-themselves-up-by-their-own-bootstraps-not-take-affirmative-action-handouts-from-whites politics is a kind of counterpoint to Mrs. Edelman’s ACLU-ish leanings.) Then we learn L.C. Minor plays classical piano—beautifully, over the telephone, to Mrs. Major, who listens with cocktail in hand and a yearning borne of loneliness in her marriage.
Who is this guy? And what is he doing in this play?
When I first encountered Our Suburb at a Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage reading in September, the character of L.C. had me perplexed. Now, seeing the play fully staged (the script evidently tweaked), I could follow L.C.’s storyline clearly in context, and I realized how it suffuses the vision of the work (which has been directed with artful authority and authenticity by Judith Ivey).
Not to knock Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, but that burg really was an insular place. Everything that happened there was in close-cropped closeup. Sure, each time we pay that remote village a visit, Wilder’s eloquent narrative makes us re-appreciate, like clocks-ticking clockwork, just how universally extraordinary our ordinary human life is. But Grover’s Corners was a world without a world outside. A podunk portrait framed by Norman Rockwell. A sketchy etching by Currier and Ives. Hardly any town in America looks like Grover’s Corners anymore (if indeed any ever did). The whole wide world of global enmity and ad hominem animus has interrupted our parochial dreams.
Our Suburb never lets us forget that world outside. The Neo-Nazis offstage are a story-line reminder that anti-Semitism has not perished. L.C. Minor’s aspirations to self-betterment (as well as the sympatico mutual support he shares with Mrs. Major) are a plotline reminder that racism does not heal through law and policy alone and color-blind affinity is really rare. Even the character-through-line contrast between Mrs. Edelman’s empowering return to school (with her husband’s pride and admiration) and Mrs. Major’s pre-Friedanian marital unhappiness (dismissed and abandoned by her career-driven husband) echoes everyday ongoing gender inequities.
Early on in the play, the Stage Manager remarks blithely that the war is over, the civil rights movement is over, the women’s movement is over… Our Suburb ineluctably ushers our emotions beyond such complacency—not least in the unspeakable tragedy that prompts the enormous sorrow of Act Three.
Cloud’s genius in Our Suburb is that though she never lets us forget that world outside, she also never lets us lose hold on our hearts’ hopes and dreams and our connections to one another. Our Suburb reminds us those hopes, dreams, and connections happen still, every minute of every day, within families, among friends, in neighborhoods. Just like in Our Town. Except brought home for today.
Do not miss this precious gift. It is one to treasure…and then pass on.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.
Our Suburb plays through January 12, 2014, at Theater J at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call Box Office Tickets at (800) 494-TIXS, or purchase them online.