As in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Darrah Cloud’s new play, “Our Suburb,” attempts to catalogue the waves of joy, anxiety, hope and loss that lap up in an average American community and, in the process, identify things that are special and resilient in human nature.
Whereas “Our Town” found a poignant rhythm in the ordinary patterns of small-town life, however, “Our Suburb” never locates the heartbeat of any urgent matter, certainly not at this stage of the work’s development. The play remains, simply, the definition of humdrum.
None of the events chronicled in Theater J’s world-premiere production, directed with more evidence of reverence than verve by the fine stage and film actress Judith Ivey, coalesce in a way that allows us to see the bigger picture Cloud might have in mind. They’re all fragments of a mosaic whose centerpiece has gone missing.
The particular suburb under examination here is Cloud’s home town, Skokie, Ill., which in the 1970s became a landmark on the national news map after it resisted efforts by a neo-Nazi group based in nearby Chicago to march there. The prospect was especially offensive to many of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who had built lives in Skokie.
“Our Suburb” takes place largely during that time, although it also mirrors Wilder’s celebrated play by advancing to a future when one of its deceased citizens returns to eavesdrop for a day. Cloud uses the march controversy only as backdrop, though, a choice that seems linked to some vague point about how the Nazis’ are alarming to Skokie’s older generations and less so to its younger people. Most agitated of all are a German-born Jewish grandmother (Barbara Rappaport) and a gentile World War II vet (Jim Jorgensen) who lives next door.
Her grandson Ricky Edelman and his daughter Thornton Major — yes, we get it — gaze longingly at each other from their bedroom windows. As portrayed by the appealing Joshua Dick and Sarah Taurchini, the high-schoolers come as close as “Our Suburb” gets to a cohesive story of some authentic feeling. While Ricky, the academically indifferent son of a butcher (Michael Willis), just wants to escape a destiny of trimming fat from slabs of brisket, the more gifted Thornton has her eye on the Ivy League.
Life, though, has a way of putting chinks in our hopes. Or, as poetically pointed out for us by Jjana Valentiner’s Stage Manager —another “Our Town” device appropriated by “Our Suburb” — things fall apart. “A pipe burst in the wall of the Majors’ house. The Edelmans’ driveway cracked,” she tells us, as the events of the play take a turn for the mournful.
I wish I could say the narrative threads were gathered into some compelling knots, but “Our Suburb’s” ambitions don’t extend much beyond the level of homage to Wilder and Skokie. Ivey doesn’t help much here: “Our Town’s” pared-down production values feel as if they’ve been replicated bloodlessly in “Our Suburb,” in everything from the off-putting offhandedness of Valentiner’s countenance to the hackneyed primitiveness of Samina Vieth’s set.
Wilder made his fictional setting, Grover’s Corners, N.H., a kind of everyplace into which audiences could settle meaningfully. Cloud’s Skokie is more specific and, in this playwright’s telling, less interesting. To appreciate Cloud’s impressions, perhaps you had to be there.
by Darrah Cloud. Directed by Judith Ivey. Set, Samina Vieth; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Eric Shimelonis; costumes, Deb Sivigny; projections, Robbie Hayes. With James J. Johnson, Barbara Pinolini, Kathryn Kelley. About two hours. Tickets, $35-$65. Through Jan. 12 at D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.