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Chicago by John Olson

Our Town
Lookingglass Theatre Company

Our Town
Heidi Stillman and David Schwimmer
Chicago's 2008-09 theater season has turned into a homecoming of artists who began their careers here before moving on to greater glory on the coasts. "CSI"'s William L. Peterson returned to the Chicago stage in Steppenwolf's Dublin Carol last Fall, and now "Friends"' David Schwimmer is appearing with the company he helped found for the first time since his TV series ended production in 2003. Further, his return to Lookingglass in this production has been under the direction of Steppenwolf's Anna D. Shapiro (co-directing with Jessica Thebus) in her first local project after winning the Tony for August: Osage County. It's fitting that the occasion should be a production of the Thornton Wilder play that celebrates community and recalls a time when most people never ventured very far from home.

Audiences coming to Our Town hoping to see a bit of "Friends"' Ross Geller on stage won't be disappointed. Schwimmer pulls from Ross' insecurities and vulnerabilities in creating a believably teenaged George Gibbs, and Schwimmer's comedic skills, honed over 11 seasons of performing in a top sitcom before live audiences, are amply in evidence. His timing and reactions are dead-on as he creates a George who's just a little slow on the uptake. Schwimmer also shows some dramatic chops in his character's brief but convincing act three breakdown.

Directors Shapiro and Thebus have found the perfect way to play the comedy in this piece. The laughs are frequent, though gentle, and borne of self-recognition of the little delusions and inconsistencies with which we conduct our lives. The humor provides a good measure of entertainment value to a piece in which not a lot actually happens, and the brisk pacing gets the play's points across in just the right amount of time to make its points. Performances are presentational—certainly Wilder wants us to know his view of small America circa 1901 was an idealized one—but not forced or self-conscious. Their tone is set by Joey Slotnick's measured performance as the Stage Manager. He's charming, but never forced or seeking a period quaintness. His interpretation lets Wilder's wise material largely speak for itself. (Slotnick has made a successful career for himself as a film and TV actor on the coasts as well).

Wilder gave Our Town a deliberate theatricality. His narrator is called the Stage Manager after all, and the play is meant to be performed with only a minimal set. Lookingglass has taken that concept even further to highlight the skills of its ensemble. Most noticeable is the fact that the cast members—contemporaries who founded their company after graduating from Northwestern University—all seem about the same age, which means they're mostly older or younger than their characters. This takes some getting used to, but before long, the ensemble convinces they're the ages they play—through their physical movement, their line readings, but commendably, not through altering their voices to sound old or young. The fathers are especially good. David Catlin gives Dr. Gibbs a deliberateness and wisdom that avoids cliché while Andrew White's Mr. Webb is a worldly and perceptive newspaper publisher of the Grover's Corners Sentinel. As the mothers, Heidi Stillman is a wistful Mrs. Gibbs and Christine Mary Dunford is all New England stoicism as Mrs. Webb. Laura Eason's Emily Webb is her mother's daughter—smart and resolute and very much what George needs in his life.

Thebus and Shapiro take Wilder's minimalist concept even further by wardrobing them all in a scheme of costumes by Janice Pytel that dresses the entire cast in a gauzy neutral beige that refers to no particular period. The women are in dresses, the boys in off-white T-shirts, and the men with jackets or vests (presumably signifying their maturity) over those shirts. Though there's a prop designer listed among the credits, there seem to be no props, as the cast pantomimes their characters' everyday activities like preparing food, tossing balls or hurling newspapers. The major production value, though, is an impressive one. It's an array of period artifacts—desks, lamps and even a baby grand piano along with a globe that at one point serves as a quite romantic moon—suspended over the playing area. I would guess these are the work of scenic designer John Musial, though maybe they're the props credited to Galen Pejeau. Though the globe is the only one to figure in the play's action, these items serve to take us into the story's period before the performance begins.

Lookinggglass' virtual in-the-round staging—the audience is mostly on two sides of the action, with small seating areas on the other two sides—brings us close enough to the action to feel a part of the town. This production's deliberate theatricality, while a little off-putting at first, is ultimately an honest and persuasive way of communicating Wilder's ideas. Though his story is set in the first decade of the 20th century, he clearly intended audiences of the 1930s, when it was first performed, to recognize a timelessness in its message. Regardless of the changes in our daily routines over the decades, which even in the 1930s bore little resemblance to Grover's Corners, he wants us to recognize that we all share a very brief time together in our communities and must savor it while we can. Any greater amount of visual period detail might obscure that point.

Our Town will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays through April 5th at the Lookingglass Theater, inside the Chicago Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue. For more information and box office hours, visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org.


Photo: Sean Williams

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-- John Olson



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