Our Town
The Hypocrites

“..David Cromer picked up a top off-Broadway honor for "The Adding Machine…rushed back to Chicago for "Our Town”..at plucky Chopin Theater” – Chicago Tribune 5/18/09
“...among the very best off-Loop productions of our era. – Chicago Tribune 5/9/09
"Astonishing...cancel whatever you're doing tonight and go and see this show". - Chicago Tribune 5/2/08
Highly Recommended ".. production should travel the globe... far better ambassador of "American values" than any stiff-necked consular official” - Chicago Sun Times 4/29/08

04/24/08 - 06/08/08


'Our Town' astounds! That's right, 'Our Town'

David Cromer has directed some distinguished Chicago productions in his career, including Next Theatre's "The Adding Machine," for which he just snagged a bucket-load of award nominations. But I think his brilliantly revisionist and astounding new production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" by The Hypocrites is his masterwork to date. And it takes place in a Wicker Park basement for 20 bucks a ticket.

In the jaw-dropping third act, which makes some truly shocking and inspired conceptual choices that are best experienced without foreknowledge, I found myself speaking the words "Oh, my God" to no one. And despite eccentricities, I'm not that given to inappropriate interjections. It's just that this "Our Town" hit me that hard. If your tastes run to shows that make you stare right in the face of your own mortality and inability to prioritize what and who really matters in life, your own petty obsessions and jealousies, then cancel whatever you're doing tonight and go and see this show. And, to save you an e-mail after, you're welcome.

"He's going on like this about Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town?' " you must be thinking. "That hoary small-town staple of the high school repertory?" Ah, but you've never seen it done like this before.

Here is what Cromer (who plays the stage manager along with directing) does: He removes every last shred of sentimentality from the piece, replacing it with a blend of cynicism and simple human truth. But—and here's the rub—he does so without removing the vitality and sincerity. Like many great revivals (the current "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center is in my mind), it's neither archly conceptual nor a subversion of a great American play, but an explication for the modern age.

I'm telling you, it's that revelatory a show.

Wilder, of course, deserves much of the credit. I kept thinking of the last episode of "Six Feet Under," when Alan Ball whisked us forward to learn the mostly undignified fates of the characters we'd come to love. Wilder did much the same in 1938, and he was smart enough to do so in the middle of the play.

In Cromer's hands, it's as if you're being whisked in and out of your own grave. His modern-dress "Our Town" is staged in and around the audience. You spend two hours thinking about communities and what we've done to them, as well as about how parents in small towns risk imbuing their children with the tyranny of low expectations.

The performances aren't flashy, or the work of hugely experienced actors, but most of them are pitch perfect nonetheless. Tim Curtis does superb work as Mr. Webb; Stacy Stoltz is a deeply emotional Mrs. Gibbs; Jennifer Grace is a yearning, believable Emily. In the third act, the actors seem to come out of the floor and surround you with their sadness and stoicism.

Cromer calibrates "Our Town" with clear-eyed intelligence. You see the beauties of small-town America and its limitations, laid out before you as directly and powerfully as the Chicago theater can muster” - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 5/3/08

'Our Town' director David Cromer does this town proud

Last week in New York, David Cromer picked up best-director nominations from the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk. Both were for his critically acclaimed off-Broadway production of “The Adding Machine.” Also last week, Cromer opened a dark, brilliant, wholly revelatory production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” in the basement of the Chopin Theatre.

That’s the life of a Chicago freelance director—canapés in the West Village one moment, the subterranean reaches of Milwaukee Avenue the next. But if you take the time to climb down those stairs to see the latest effort from The Hypocrites, you’ll be rewarded with Chicago theater at its very finest. I thought this “Our Town,” the iconic play about life in small-town America, was among the very best off-Loop productions of our era. And if you don’t believe me, you should read the e-mails sent by readers who’ve seen the show.

Shana Lowitz talked about “renewed trust” in my recommendations. That’s a back-handed compliment if ever there was one, but Ms. Lowitz apparently hasn’t forgiven me for gushing over “The Light in the Piazza.” Different strokes.

More powerfully yet, John Bergeron sent a note about his feelings during the show. “I really had to struggle to compose myself during Act III,” he wrote. “Now two hours after the final curtain, I feel profound sadness. I am relieved to know that I will pick at this over the next few days and be able to settle on some conclusions.”

I understand that response. Mine was much the same.

This isn’t the first time Cromer has dazzled Chicago audiences in intimate surroundings. His 2006 production of “Come Back, Little Sheba” for Shattered Globe was a brilliant piece of direction. So was his take on Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow” in 2000 at the Steppenwolf Theatre. His shows have used different levels of actors, ranging from big New York names and the likes of Tracy Letts to the current, mostly youthful, non-Equity crew making up the cast of “Our Town.” But those productions have all had in common a brilliant conceptual core, rooted in the most powerful kinds of human truths.

I’ve long thought Cromer should be running his own Chicago theater company—one wishes someone would give him an opportunity, much as the Goodman Theatre once gave Robert Falls of the Wisdom Bridge Theatre Company an opportunity. But I fear we will be leaving that to New York.

Mention Cromer’s name around town—which I’ve been doing a lot this week—and some people in the theater business develop a certain tension of the jaw. Cromer has not always been an easy guy to work with. He is known as a compulsive artist, not a savvy administrator. And he is not known for his willingness to play political games or suck up to those in positions of power.

But when that third act of “Our Town” hits you, as it surely will, none of that will matter. You’ll just be thankful for the artistry, the guts and the truth" - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 5/9/09

Actor-director Cromer fulfilling early promise - Skokie native overcoming reputation for being difficult to work with

Actor-director David Cromer flew to New York a couple of weeks ago and picked up a top off-Broadway honor for staging the musical version of "The Adding Machine."

That Lucille Lortel Award in hand, he rushed back to Chicago, to his role as the Stage Manager in "Our Town," which he also directed. You'd expect the recipient of a glitzy Big Apple citation to be playing at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare or some other prominent theater.

But "Our Town" is at the scruffy, plucky Chopin Theater in West Town, and not even in the upstairs main space, but in the basement, where Cromer and fellow actors vie with sizable concrete pillars to be seen by the 100-member audience flocking to the sold-out hit.

For nearly two decades, if there was an emerging director likely to hit the big time, it was Cromer, 43. That it's finally happening attests to the intelligence, artistry and vision so many saw over the years. That it has taken a while says something about his reputation for difficulty and hesitancy to reach for the brass ring.

"I'm covetous, but not ambitious," Cromer says over snacks at the Heartland Café near his Rogers Park home. "Getting things on that bigger scale would require I be more diligent in pursuing them, in making friends, in just beating the pavement. Truth is, what I love more than anything else is to lie in bed and watch television."

That wry wit aside, Cromer's accomplishments contravene any claims to being a slacker. His work is not just excellent, but often electrifying. Besides "Adding Machine" at Next Theatre and "Our Town" for the Hypocrites—two of the more celebrated Chicago shows of the past couple of years—Cromer's credits include "Come Back, Little Sheba" at Shattered Globe Theater, "The Dazzle" and "Golden Boy" at Steppenwolf, "The Price" and "Booth" at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe and the epic "The Cider House Rules," which he co-directed with actor Marc Grapey for Famous Door.

Successful artists have a heck of a time explaining their success, a potion concocted of indeterminate doses of smarts, sensitivity, wisdom and even mysticism. Cromer brings a focus on details and a tenacity in trying to achieve them. In "Our Town," when Emily returns from the grave to witness one last family breakfast, actual bacon fries on the set.

"He brings an uncompromising vision and a belief in what he's doing," Grapey says, while noting that Cromer quit twice during the "Cider House" production, only to return the following day. "A lot of time, David is the smartest guy in the room, and people don't want to admit that. He's incredibly detailed and specific. The prop manager might ask, 'David, this character is in the back row. Do we really need a vintage costume?' He'll invariably answer yes. Certain actors struggle, tormented about alternative approaches, and while some directors might waffle, trying to be sympathetic, if an actor asks, 'Should I try this?' David's likely to say simply, 'No.' "

"I want to come off lovely and personable, but there are times I believed I was hired to generate a certain kind of work," Cromer says. "I don't think I've been cavalier with people's money. It was always about creative problem solving, about allotment of energy. I've definitely been difficult when told, 'No.' "

He admits tact is an art he's still mastering. "Were there better ways to get what I wanted? Absolutely. Were there ways I could have communicated my ideas that would enable people to get on board with me and not feel like they were morons? Yes.

"I don't want to be a pain," Cromer continues. "I can be in a situation like 'Our Town' where I'm having such a wonderful time, and I'm enjoying the show, socializing with the cast more than I have in a long time. And then, across town, there's someone I'm no longer speaking to."

He breaks into a broad grin. "I only hope the people who find me difficult take ownership of their own part in our conflicts as I take part in mine."

Cromer returns this summer to Steppenwolf to direct Jason Welles' "Perfect Mendacity" in the Garage. "I love him, he's wonderfully bright, talented and deeply a man of the theater," says artistic director Martha Lavey.

"There's a brutality about his work that's refreshing and exhilarating," says Michael Halberstam, artistic director of Writers' Theatre, where Cromer will stage "Picnic" this fall. "There are few directors who so consistently cut with uncompromising drive to the heart of a play. All artists with specific, driven visions could be called difficult, but I've never had a conversation with him that wasn't directly about the art itself."

"Our Town" and the Hypocrites offer the kind of hardscrabble, adventurous milieu where Cromer thrives. "With 'Our Town,' I realized productions have a tendency to be folksy, to seem very, very precious, about a foreign environment with lots of gingham dresses," he says. "The first line in Thornton Wilder's script calls for no scenery and no curtain, the original intent was to strip away artifice. But over the years, 'Our Town' acquired its own artifice simply from the fact of being so produced. We wanted to strip away that artifice without turning the play on its head."

Cromer decided he should play the Stage Manager, but not in the conventional sense of a director casting himself. "Not to pretend it's not the raging egomania of someone who loves the sound of his own voice," Cromer jokingly admits. But, "it's artificial to hire an actor to pretend to tell everyone where to stand, or when the play would start," as the Stage Manager does. "The idea is that I come out naturally and just say, 'Here's this play.' It's what I do when not acting. I direct, and I teach." Cromer is playing himself.

In his boldest move, Cromer cuts the most famous line. When Emily, watching her family as a ghost, wonders if anyone ever really lives life to the fullest, Wilder wrote, "No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some." Cromer answers merely, "No. Maybe. Some."

"I usually feel passionately about the letter of the play, but as we rehearsed, the line bothered me, as if you need to be rarified or an artist to live life fully. I found it elitist and self-congratulatory."

Cromer grew up "vaguely Jewish" in Skokie, auditioning for "Alice in Wonderland" in 4th grade because of his mother's love of the tale. As the Mad Hatter, he learned, "I couldn't believe how full it felt and how much sense it made to be there, working so long on this thing and then, after only a couple of performances, it's over. How heartbreaking."

He dropped out of Evanston High School, eventually earned his GED certificate and enrolled at Columbia College, where "I've been ever since" and now teaches.

In 1991, he directed John Guare's "Women and Water" in a revelatory storefront production and has continued to be a force in Chicago theater.

As an actor, he played Edmund in Robert Falls' production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," at one point strutting about barefoot, a touch, like so many in his work, emanating from the text—Edmund had just come inside after a walk on the beach.

"Adding Machine," which premiered last year at Next and re-opened this season off-Broadway, may change his world. Nominated for director of a musical in the Outer Critics Circle Awards, Cromer was in the company of two industry giants (Susan Stroman and Bartlett Sher, who won) and one legend, Arthur Laurents. "There was no dinner, but it would have made for a very interesting table," he says.

Funny, reassuring, alternately vulnerable and self-assured, Cromer is nothing if not complex.

"I'm a pretty specialized nerd. I can do the things I know how to do and not much else," he says. "I'm the 'Rain Man' of directing. I can count a million toothpicks in a second, but I'm not so hot tying my own shoes." - Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune 05/18/08

Rule No. 1: Don't close a hit show

Here’s a bad habit of the Chicago theater: closing a hit show. The most recent example is the Hypocrites’ production of “Our Town,” which ends Sunday, right on its original schedule. If you tried to get a ticket to David Cromer’s remarkable production in the basement of the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park, you discovered the show sold out several weeks ago.

The Hypocrites were overwhelmed by the huge demand for tickets—and they turned away hordes of people. Those folks—the vast majority of whom had never seen a Hypocrites show before—represent a huge missed opportunity for a young theater company that needs to expand its profile. And although the Hypocrites will surely do fine work in the future, it’s tough to replicate a hit of this magnitude. Sometimes in the theater, everything comes together in spectacular fashion. And when it does, one must seize and prolong the moment. While the moment is still here.

Sure, you can remount a show. TimeLine Theatre is doing that quite effectively right now with “Fiorello,” which is well worth seeing again. And I’m told the Hypocrites are pondering a remount of “Our Town” in the fall, although likely without the busy David Cromer in the lead role of the stage manager. But usually it’s a lot easier to keep momentum building than to start pushing a rock again from scratch.

Some understand this. “August: Osage County” went directly from the Steppenwolf Theatre to Broadway. The commercial producers of “A Steady Rain” moved the show from Chicago Dramatists to the Royal George while the buzz was still hot. (It’s been playing, in total, for about five months and ends Sunday.) The Prop Thtr Group keeps “Hizzoner” continuously ticking along at various venues—and they keep up the pressure on the likes of me to keep talking about the show.

But all too often, theaters get overcome by the seemingly insurmountable problems of keeping a show going. Actors have schedule issues (well, they can be replaced). There is someone else booked for the space (deals can usually be made). There is another show to work on (it can probably wait). Whatever the issue, it can almost always be solved by some creative thinking.

I hope, for example, that the Ann Landers play, “The Lady with All the Answers,” moves directly downtown after its Northlight Theatre run. Judith Ivey, the star of the show, sounds like she’s game for more. And the best time is right now” - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 06/06/08

Inspired production keeps 'Our Town' clever, modern
Highly Recommended -

The 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play -- which opened on Broadway as the Great Depression lingered and war clouds were gathering over Europe -- reminds us of our shared address when one young girl delights in the way a letter has been addressed to a resident of her town: "Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God." The play also serves as a wake-up call to anyone who might have forgotten that any address is only temporary, as death will eventually claim each of us and remove us from what Wilder saw as the quiet divinity of everyday existence.

David Cromer has brought a true touch of genius to the Hypocrites' new production of "Our Town," which he has directed, and also stars in (with a wicked brilliance) as the Stage Manager. And in the black box environment of Chopin Theatre's basement -- with no decor but two sets of worn kitchen tables and chairs (until a profound and stunning moment of reversal in the play's third act) -- he has created a bond between the audience and his perambulating actors with such (seeming) effortlessness that they all become residents of the very average New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners without even knowing it. Cromer has magic up his sleeve and it involves capturing the unbridled truth.

If this sounds a bit mysterious, well, it is. For there is a wondrous simplicity and nakedness about this production as it spins a blazingly intense yet sharply satiric story of two small-town, middle-class American families whose destinies become intertwined through the rituals of daily life, love and marriage and death.

A cast of 19 (plus a few terrific "ringers") is altogether remarkable. The young lovers -- Mark Fagin as George Gibbs, the town doctor's youthfully feckless son who quickly morphs into a man, and Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb, the brainy, insightful editor's daughter -- are heartbreakingly real. Stacy Stoltz and Samantha Gleisten do exquisite work as the respective mothers, with John Byrnes and Tim Curtis the drolly philosophical dads. As for musical director Jonathan Mastro, who plays Simon Stimson, Grover's Corners' alcoholic choir director, he nearly steals the show as the artist- outsider.

This production should travel the globe. It would be a far better ambassador of "American values" than any stiff-necked consular official”. - Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times 4/29/08

Chicago theater's busiest man?
DAVID CROMER | Ubiquitous actor-director-teacher builds impressive record of projects and plaudits

The number of projects being juggled is so daunting, the list of award nominations is so long, and the physical uprooting being contemplated is so significant that you easily might excuse David Cromer for being a bit distracted these days. Yet as it happens, the actor-director-teacher -- one of those quintessential Chicago-bred theater artists who has been stoking the divine fire of his talent for decades, and is now, at 43, in full blaze -- has never seemed more focused.

Consider the projects and plaudits piled high on Cromer's plate:
-- He is starring as the acerbic and very modern Stage Manager in the revelatory revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" that he also staged (with dazzling simplicity and impact). The nearly sold-out production by the Hypocrites runs through June 8 in the Chopin Theatre studio, and sadly can't be extended.

-- His production of "Adding Machine," which debuted at Evanston's Next Theatre last year and opened in February at New York's Minetta Lane Theatre (where it is still running), has garnered him a prestigious Lucille Lortel Award as outstanding director of an Off-Broadway musical, as well as an Outer Critics Circle nomination for best musical director.

- In his "spare" time, Cromer is completing casting for his revival of William Inge's "Picnic" (to open in September at Writers' Theatre). He also has begun thinking about Aaron Sorkin's recent Broadway play "The Farnsworth Invention," which he'll direct at Houston's Alley Theater next year.

- Finally, while finishing up the current semester of teaching at Columbia College (advanced scene study for musical theater, and an undergraduate directing course), Cromer is lining up teaching possibilities in New York.

"Well, you heard it here," he said as we chatted recently at the Eleven City Diner in the South Loop. "I'm planning to move to New York sometime in the fall. I have an agent at William Morris now. I know enough people I can stay with until I find my own place. And while I was watching my father on life support earlier this year -- he died seven days before 'Adding Machine' opened Off-Broadway -- I had the crazy thought that I didn't want to reach the end of my life without having lived in more than one city."

Cromer was born and reared in Skokie, the third of four brothers.

"I think I decided to be an actor in fourth grade," he confessed. "I played the Mad Hatter in a production of 'Alice in Wonderland.' I liked the top hat. Even more I liked the attention."

By the time he and his brothers were teenagers, their parents had divorced and he had "a single mother who was clearly overwhelmed." Cromer dropped out of Evanston High School at 16 (he later got his GED), headed to Chicago and "went to see 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' as often as possible."

"Columbia College saved my life," he said. "It had an open admissions policy and accepted me. That was 25 years ago. I never quite graduated, but I began teaching while still a student."

He also began making his mark on the Chicago theater scene with such early productions as John Guare's "Women and Water." Later triumphs have included "The Cider House Rules" (the epic at Famous Door, co-directed with Marc Grapey), "Journey's End" (at Seanachai), "Come Back Little Sheba" (at Shattered Globe) and "Orson's Shadow" (at Steppenwolf, Off-Broadway and beyond).

As for why he chose "Our Town," Cromer frankly blames it on 16 Famous American Plays, a book edited by Bennett Cerf and published many decades ago. "I've built my whole career around that book," he said. "And I'm laughing because it happens to be so true."

Also true is that he has wanted to play the Stage Manager for years -- ever since seeing Hal Holbrook in a television version and later, a New York stage production starring Spalding Gray, whose line readings Cromer admits to "lifting whole." "And I liked the idea of doing a play that was all about the lack of artifice, because of course there is artifice in NO artifice."

Ask Cromer about his dream project and he doesn't hesitate: "Tennessee Williams' 'Sweet Bird of Youth,' because I've been having some thoughts about Williams' drug- and booze-addled but still-productive later period, and I think those plays need to be full of intense colors and sounds." – Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun Times 5/14/08

* * * * - “I’ve always been partial to the sinister reading of Remembrance of Things Past as an elaborate phantasmagoria: Proust’s narrator remembers nothing, his sprawling belle epoque reminiscence being, in reality, just the feverish dreams of a bedroom-bound invalid (like Proust himself). There’s a similar take on Our Town that upends the conventional sentimental treatment familiar to what’s likely the most-produced-in-high-school-theater play ever. Like a nonmusical Spoon River Anthology, this reading makes ghosts of all the turn-of-the-century characters, not just the conscious dead of its last act—benign shades endlessly re-creating a perpetually fading time and place.

It’s a stretch, of course, but Wilder was the screenwriter on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which took an equally jaundiced view of “evil” and “good,” contrasting Joseph Cotten’s black-heart charisma with the everyday suffocation of the prim little burg where he hides out. There’s a proto-Lynchian, twilit ambiguity running through Wilder’s brand of Rockwelliana, something sympathetic yet cool: He’s come to praise and bury this vision of small-town America, as testified by his two “outsider” surrogates—the metatheatrical Stage Manager and the suicidal, alcoholic organist Simon Stimson—especially in their elegiac closing remarks.

Director Cromer—who also deftly plays the empathetic/dispassionate narrator—teases out muted, wistful notes, bringing things closer to the gently spectral style Wilder arguably intended than what you may’ve been conditioned to expect from this “nostalgic” chestnut. Outside one audacious—and brilliant—bit of set-design excess, things hew close to the bare-bones staging the script dictates. Leads Grace and Fagin are winning without stooping to aw-shucks cuteness; but it’s Byrnes and Curtis, as their golden-lit fathers, who deliver the show’s signature performances”. - Brian Nemtusak, TimeOut Chicago 5/1/08

Director David Cromer goes from Off Broadway to Our Town - TimeOut Chicago 4/24/08

"If there’s one thing David Cromer hates, it’s talking about himself. Or talking, period. He often pauses for several seconds looking for the right word and then, hearing himself, wheels back around. “The trouble you’re going to have,” he warns me about making sense of our interview, “is sentences sound slightly interesting part-way through, but you’ll find the end of the sentence doesn’t match the beginning of the sentence. So good luck to ya.”

The droll director needn’t be so reticent. The 43-year-old Skokie native’s body of work includes some of the most talked-about Chicago theater of the last two decades: the Steppenwolf premiere, in 2000, of Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow, which he subsequently directed all over the country; the two-part epic Cider House Rules, codirected with Marc Grapey for Famous Door in 2003; and the Journeymen’s 1998 Chicago debut of Angels in America, in which he also played Louis.

As a director, Cromer has a flair for heightened reality, often in material that wouldn’t seem to call for it. It’s a gift that’s most recently been on display in Adding Machine, the Joshua Schmidt–Jason Loewith musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s Expressionist classic that debuted at Next Theatre last spring. Cromer’s production, nearly intact from its Evanston run, is now playing Off Broadway to ecstatic reviews; it recently racked up six nominations for Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Awards, including one for Cromer.

Ironically, those Expressionist instincts nearly ended his directing career before it began. Cromer’s first time at the helm was in a Directing I class at Columbia College, where he was studying acting. “I directed the scene between the young hack and his girl from Waiting for Lefty. I spent all semester on it,” he recalls. “I did a lot of bullshitty directing stuff to it. I had this beam of light, and I did this stupid kind of misdirection thing where she sits in the light while he does this huge monologue outside the light.… I’m the only person who’s ever gotten savaged in a Directing I scene. They went after me like they were really mad,” Cromer says with a laugh. It would be several years before he tried his hand at directing again. (He now teaches that class at Columbia.)

“Adding Machine is a large extension of that scene,” he muses. “Almost every show there’s a point where I go, This just goes back to that Waiting for Lefty scene. I suddenly get rewarded for it. So stick it out, kids!”

While Adding Machine plays on in New York and the company waits to see how many Lortels it will take home on May 5, Cromer makes his triumphant return to Chicago by directing himself in the role of the stage manager in Our Town. In a basement.


“The short answer is, They asked,” he says of the Hypocrites production of the Thornton Wilder classic opening this week. “The idea that there’s some inundation of amazing jobs and they’re knocking down the door is not exactly true. My season is booking up, but not any faster or more successfully than it ever does.”

That typically eclectic season includes a return to Writers’ Theatre this fall, directing Grapey in Picnic; Cromer also will direct a regional premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s The Farnsworth Invention, which debuted earlier this season on Broadway, for Houston’s Alley Theatre. But Cromer is uncommonly candid about approaching regional work: “Farnsworth is a Broadway play that’s going out into the regionals. You’re gonna sort of second-string everything doing regional productions of plays that are ending instead of beginning.”

Endings and beginnings are, of course, what Our Town is all about. Wilder’s classic follows small-town sweethearts George and Emily, along with their neighbors, from childhood to marriage to death and beyond; the play emphasizes the importance of savoring the moment. “It’s always about the struggle between being exactly where you are and having context for exactly where you are. That’s constant,” says Cromer.

“It yields something new every time,” he says of the play. “It just won’t stop getting better. It is nearly actor-proof and director-proof.” And then he hears what he just said. “Oh man, I don’t even want to think about how that’s going to bite me in the ass.” Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 4/24/08

Our Town (Also Cromer’s “Town” and Schwimmer’s “Town”)

Couldn’t get tickets for the Hypocrites’ rhapsodically received production of Our Town in the Chopin basement? No sweat. It’s coming back to the Chopin this fall for another six-week run with most of its original cast in tow. Including its director. (And that’s not even half of the company’s good news.)

In case you haven’t heard: The Stage Manager character who narrates Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer winner about small-town life—or, pending your perspective, about Buddhist philosophy—is played by the man who also directed the production, wry trickster David Cromer. (Full disclosure: Cromer’s a pal of mine.) His gorgeous staging has been sold out for most of its run, but the talk of an eventual remount was shrouded in melancholy; given the recent success with his off-Broadway transfer of Next Theatre’s Adding Machine, there appeared to be no chance that he’d be able to play the role again if the show came back. And audiences who’ve seen his sardonic, understated performance will tell you it can’t be replicated.

But somehow Cromer has cleared his schedule to appear in the remount.

But what’s perhaps more exciting is the company’s other fall project: a staging of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera in the Steppenwolf Garage, to be directed by Sean Graney. Coming off two very different productions—in addition to Cromer’s Our Town, the Hypocrites reached another, different kind of artistic high with Graney’s subversive promenade staging of Miss Julie—the Hypocrites have a new, well-earned aesthetic leverage. Brecht and Weill’s dark and complicated opera is a challenge worthy of the troupe in both its scope and its themes. Since the Hypocrites’ last appearance in the Garage, Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in 2006, nothing in the Steppenwolf’s Garage lineup has come within spitting distance of that production’s theatrical daring or its challenge of audience expectations. (Why the Garage ever has a dark night at all is beyond me, but surely there are companies doing less outwardly populist work than the House and Collaboraction, which could make dynamic use of that space.)

Meanwhile, the once-rumored Lookingglass production of Our Town—complete with David Schwimmer as George Gibbs and Joey Slotnick as the Stage Manager—is now confirmed as a part of the company’s 21st season, along with Heidi Stillman’s adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov and a revival of Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights (a fabled production I’m excited to see brought back around, never having had the chance to catch it the first time).

Of course, since the January chatter of an alumni-populated Lookingglass Our Town started, the stakes have been raised considerably. The show will be co-directed by protean talents Jessica Thebus and Anna Shapiro. Since the rumors began, Shapiro has picked up several directing prizes for her triumphant work in the Broadway transfer of August: Osage County (and our money’s on her to nab the Tony next Sunday). Meanwhile, the Hypocrites’ modest-but-muscular staging has changed the way many Chicagoans think about Wilder’s play.

In the Chopin basement, you’ll see a host of seasoned non-Equity actors, many coming directly from their desk jobs, practicing their craft in the humblest environs possible. At Lookingglass, you’ll see a host of seasoned (technical) professionals in the ‘glass’s elegant Michigan Avenue digs, as well as some famous faces (in case such celeb-peeking is your version of Viagra).

Needless to say, this pair of Our Towns has also become a tale of two cities. But, as any Thornton Wilder buff will tell you, it’s tough to find a more exciting contrast to kick off the fall theater season” – Christopher Piatt, TimeOut Chicago Blog 6/6/08

With a record number of productions in regional theaters across the country this season, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is reestablishing the claim that it is the most-produced play of the American theater canon.

Recommended - “Like Oklahoma! and Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Thornton Wilder's classic drama about life, love, and death in fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, has been the victim of overexposure, misinterpretation, and sentimental high school instructors. Though the play is to some degree an earnest celebration of small-town life, Wilder never glosses over the confusion and blindness of life in general. David Cromer's production for the Hypocrites manages to strip the play of the Norman Rockwell sheen it has acquired over the years without succumbing to the hip but fatal temptation of applying irony or cynicism. The modern-dress staging is as simple as Wilder wanted it, the acting guileless and tender. Particularly fine is Jennifer Grace, whose Emily seems by turns sure of her place in the world and utterly lost”. Zac Thompson, Chicago Reader 5/1/08

"Written over seventy years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone brought up in the U.S. public school system who hasn't at least read or studied the play, perhaps even been in a production themselves at one point. With such a long-standing culture familiarity, it’s difficult to imagine breathing new life into this old standard without pulling out some serious smoke and mirrors.

That’sprecisely why David Cromer's staging for The Hypocrites is such a revelation: this intimate production, from a company known for turning classics on their head, stays true to Wilder's stripped-down, bare-bones stage (with the exception of a brief and brilliant third-act sequence)--relying on the talent sof the fairly rock-solid ensemble to bring Grover's Corners to life (with Cromer himself at the helm on stage as well, in the role of the narrating stage manager).

What's missing, thankfully, is any trace oft sometimes saccharine sentimentality that can make this play seem to last nearly as long as the lifespan it covers. On the contrary, the Hypocrites staging is urgent, honest and unflinching, played with an immediacy that cuts right to the heart of the matter--the play, like the lives it portrays, is over before you know it--leaving both characters and audiences wanting just a little bit more. Jennifer Grace and Rob Fagin are particular standouts as Emily Webb and George Gibb” - Valeria Jean Johnson, NewCity Chicago 5/1/08

Our Town is Jeff Recommended - The designation of "Jeff Recommended" is given to a production when at least ONE ELEMENT of the show was deemed outstanding by the opening night judges of The Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee. The entire production is then eligible for nomination for awards at the end of the season.

Thornton Wilder

David Cromer

Jessica Anne, David Cromer, Robert Fagin, Samantha Gleisten, Jennifer Grace, Brian Hinkle, Rosalind Hurwitz, Jonathan Mastro, Jeremy Noll, Bill O’Connor, Stacy Stoltz, D’Wayne Taylor

Scenic Design - Courtney O’Neill; Costume Design - Alison Siple; Original Music - Jonathan Mastro; Sound Design - Jonathan Mastro; Lighting Design - Heather Gilbert

Tags: Theater, Old Europe, 2008