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On the fence

Theater Review: "Our Suburb" at JCC CenterStage 

On the fence

In "Our Suburb," a new play on stage through March 29 at JCC CenterStage, Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Our Town," is repurposed for a new generation.

Originally set in a fictional New Hampshire town in the early 1900's, Wilder's classic dissected family cyclicality and the fragility of life: teenagers growing up, getting married, eventually coming to their life's end. Playwright Darrah Cloud uses this framework to establish her own world, but in a real life setting and in a more accessible time -- Skokie, Illinois, 1976. The results become not so much an improvement upon Wilder's American classic, but an intriguing variation.

The play opens with the Stage Manager (Lauren MacDonough) who arranges props on stage and welcomes the audience as they sit down. As Wilder's original play stretched the limits of traditional theater, "Our Suburb" also invests in metatheatrical elements. The Stage Manager both narrates the story and sits in for various characters along the way. MacDonough owns the role entirely. She is hilarious, pushy, and charming. It's refreshing, not only to see this classic men's role given to a woman, but to see it done so vibrantly. She then introduces two side-by-side but socially disparate neighbors, who become the center of the story: The Edelmans, a talkative Jewish family in the midst of celebrating Hanukkah, and the Majors, a repressed, Protestant family celebrating Christmas.

Their teenage children, Ricky (Justin Borak) and Thornton (Alana Silber), eventually begin dating and bond these two families. Ricky and Thornton are not the idealistic, manner-laden (and arguably boring) teenagers of Wilder's "Our Town." Borak and Silber bring an unquenchable chemistry to these characters and to the stage. These two feel real. They cuss, make out, do drugs, and emotionally explode at one another. While their three-act trajectories are the same as in "Our Town," the eventual tragedy feels earned, like the loss of a close friend instead of an outdated ideal.

Adding depth and connectivity to 1976 Skokie, Cloud's script inserts various real life cultural and religious references. With society evolving, women are pursuing careers and earning advanced degrees. Mrs. Edelman (Jodi Beckwith) is excelling in law school, and frequently, she hears quips from her threatened, butcher store owning husband (Jeff Siuda). And when Mrs. Major (Jillian Severin) suggests a career in sales for herself, her husband (Colin Pazik) laughs it off entirely. Post-war tensions also linger. When neo-Nazis plan to march in Skokie (another real life event), the families' safety is threatened, as well as the suburban ideals they have come to depend upon. It is an added emphasis of shifting culture that works well for "Our Suburb," helping to relieve the pressure of homage and elevating it instead into a poignant period piece.

"Our Suburb" debuted in 2014 in Washington, D.C. Now, in its second production, local director Kerry Young takes on this ambitious project. The scope of the story is daunting, and at times, maybe doing too much. Thankfully, Young manages to reign it all in with sharp focus. Even when the story gets layered, busy, and messy, the results are never sloppy.

The artistic staff also excels impressively. Virginia Monte (Costume and Scenic Design) and Thomas Habecker (Lighting Design and Technical Direction) establish an easy atmosphere that perhaps links strongest to Wilder's original vision. The stage design is barren, using only tables, chairs, and scaffolding, all working together to create a symmetrical layout that engenders 1970's suburban tract housing. The background, too, is unfinished. With brick, it almost feels abandoned. When the lights change, however, the stage transforms to fit the scene. It's fun to watch.

Playwright Darrah Cloud approached Thornton Wilder's 1938 drama, "Our Town," and walked away with something that's hard to pin down. So what is it? It's not exactly a riff, not necessarily an homage, it's just something else, something more in the middle. This undefined spirit strangely defines the production. A flimsy state of proximity and borders: homage or parody, love and hate, life and death, the audience and the cast, intimate but worlds apart -- like a white picket fence.

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