Yes, it can happen here. And it once almost happened in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977 on the Fourth of July. Darrah Cloud’s magnificent play, Our Suburb, now playing at the Center for Performing Arts, follows in the footsteps of Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece Our Town. The surprise is that her play is as good as Wilder’s play. This more than adroit update features excellent direction by Tina Reilly. Jessie Truin stars as the Stage Manager, delivering intimacy, sympathy, and astonishing austerity when appropriate. Usually a stage manager flits invisibly in the shadows as the diplomatic nexus between actors and director, providing encouragement to actors yet sometimes playing bad cop for the director. In this witty, fast-paced play the stage manager is an on-stage demi-urge playing the middle link between humanity and the Creator.
The play provides something like a simultaneous split-screen between two families who are neighbors, one being working-class Jewish and one being middle-class WASP. A teenage romance develops between them while the threat of Nazis marching down Main Street preoccupies the adults. The generation rift is reified by a stream of cultural allusions and music. The two families are triangulated by an African American entrepreneur who composes mostly unpublished op-editorials. The viewer is plunged into both the intimacy of the families and their tormented histories to which the younger generation is narcissistically oblivious, yet an adroit sociological web appears in the background. The drama is stitched together with both small-town humor and eloquent meditation on the poignant brevity of life.
Valentin Shauger as the jazz-smitten teenager who dreams of opening a jazz club acts as if he was born to the role: his facial expressions, bodily gestures, and enthusiastic demeanor delivers everything a writer imagines. Ruby Freedman, acting as the younger sibling in each family, floats between two different personalities like a blushing chameleon.
Susan Gies as grandma (Mrs. Whitcoff) and Holocaust survivor supplies a powerful artery of emotion that carries the heartbeat of the drama. Randi Denetta Pannell as L.C. inhabits the dignity, aspiration against the grain, and determined self-confidence that the play wishes to impart. Josie Grant as Mrs. Major holds the stoic center while Tessa DeBella sturdily assures us that society can become more just. Emily Rosakranse is effective as rebellious and confused teenager. Old pro Lou Trapani as Mr. Edelman wrings out pathos and humor. John D. Remington as Mr. Major supplies mystery of a hidden second life with some menace amid his distracting alcoholism.
There is a great deal of mime in this play, which is often handled with self-conscious amusement or casual banality when appropriate. Humor supplies the stitching in the plot, yet the tragic personal reversal at the end brings sobering reality to the play. The end of the third act produces such poignance and eloquence that I walked out astonished. Why is this play only playing for one weekend? Why is it not running for an extended off-Broadway run? Why is this play so eloquent with its questions?
Why, dear reader, are you not rushing out to see and hear this marvelous gem? Your life will be enhanced by attending this performance at the Center.