Fans of Redtwist Theatre know that twentieth-century American classics are the Edgewater storefront company’s bread and butter, but director James Fleming is doing something different with their new production of Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play is set very specifically in a fictional tiny New England town in the very early twentieth century, but Fleming describes his vision as “a love letter to Chicago’s many communities.” While adhering to Wilder’s vision of minimal props and scenery and to go heavy on metatheatrical elements, Fleming has updated the play’s costumes to the present day and cast actors whose demographics are reflective of contemporary Edgewater.
Redtwist Recruits a Huge Cast of Fine Actors
Introducing us to life in Grover’s Corners in spoken English and ASL is the Stagemanager, played by Richard Costes, who maintains a dry edge while making his somewhat distanced observations. Veteran Redtwist ensemble members Brian Parry and Jacqueline Grandt play the emotionally restrained Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, while Jaq Seifert plays their baseball-enthused son, George. Seifert’s performance is cute and cocky. Despite Emily Webb (Elena Victoria Feliz) complaining that he is self-centered as a teenager, it’s cathartic to watch him ignore the ice cream soda guy’s endless babble and tussle with his annoying little sister (Ada Grey). Feliz’s Emily is likewise appealing and we get a very clear sense of the loving bond between her and her mother (Nicole Michelle Haskins) from the way they talk about each other and their brief, ordinary interactions.
Times Do, in Fact, Change
The intimacy of Redtwist’s space, especially with such a massive cast, puts us, the audience, into the community. The actors sit among us and this, along with the cast’s reading of the text, made the darker aspects of Grovers Corners readily apparent as well. Alcoholic choirmaster Simon Stimson (Tom Jansson) opines that life is mostly people stepping on each other, and that observation hits home when you’ve had the actors looming over you and in your space for two and a half hours. The town does feel claustrophobic and isolated.
One of the first things we see in the play is a boy in sneakers and an Old Navy shirt complain that teachers shouldn’t be married, and a hundred other similarly jarring things happen immediately afterward. For this writer and likely many others, it seems a major misstep to have the actors in modern dress. Rather than make them blend in with us, it just made every single line of dialogue in the first act absurd. And, it similarly seems to especially undermine the theme of women’s domestic drudgery being underappreciated, since being the stay-at-home wife of a doctor or professor and mother of two school-aged children indicates something completely different in 2017 than in 1904.
The first act of Our Town is about daily life in Grover’s Corners, while the second and third are about more universal themes and land more effectively. It helps a lot that wedding and funeral attire haven’t changed as much and that sound designer Connor Wang and lighting designer Daniel Friedman have found ways of making Lizzie Bracken’s set so surreal. The wedding scene is strongly affecting as well as quite funny and the third act is contemplative and vaguely unsettling. Despite aforementioned issues with the first act, the cast all understand their characters very well, this production provides the emotional and intellectual payoff people want from this show.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of our review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through October 29
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3:00 pm
1044 W Bryn Mawr
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.