'Our Town'

Youth, the saying goes, is wasted on the young. That pithy philosophical truth comes to mind during this production of "Our Town" from Chicago's Lookingglass Theater.

Youth, the saying goes, is wasted on the young. That pithy philosophical truth comes to mind during this production of “Our Town” from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater. Lookingglass usually produces edgy new work or ambitious, highly physical adaptations, but this exceptionally straightforward, sincere and affecting show represents a far more self-reflective effort. The group’s take on Thornton Wilder’s play — featuring an ensemble of fortysomethings in both adult and young roles — ponders the perspective of middle age, looking back with ever-increasing nostalgia and ahead with an ever-increasing acknowledgment of mortality.

Co-directed by Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) and Jessica Thebus (“When the Messenger Is Hot”), the production not only casts actors (all Lookingglass regulars) who are all in the same age range; everyone in this small New Hampshire town in the first decade of the 20th century wears the same beige and white garb from designer Janice Pytel — flowing skirts for the ladies, jackets for the men. The clothing exists outside of any period, a physical manifestation of the notion of a timeless tale. If heaven actually turns out to be a cultish spa in Scottsdale, this is how angels might dress.

David Schwimmer plays the young lover George Gibbs, and both he and Laura Eason as George’s eventual wife Emily let the condescension of adults toward their prior teen selves show through. Schwimmer’s George is slightly dim, with a deer-in-the-headlights look of a kid who knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Eason portrays Emily as if she were more likely to be the school’s drama queen than star pupil. But their emotional connection, while stylized, is real, and it does set up a genuinely powerful ending, as George sprawls himself in grief at Emily’s grave.

George and Emily’s middle-aged parents are played with special conviction; they dish out advice to their kids but at the same time recognize they haven’t really earned such a right. As Mary Webb, Christine Mary Dunford is a standout, infusing her outburst of concern over her daughter’s entry into marriage with true passion.

Joey Slotnick’s Stage Manager certainly doesn’t reject the folksiness of Hal Holbrook. He has a similar gentle quality, but he also brings his own natural humor. In fact, partly due to the skills of sitcom vets Schwimmer and Slotnick, the show benefits from polished comic timing, finding a nice balance between the oh-so-mildly ironic humor and the play’s darker but still warm philosophy.

There’s an overdose of miming here, which keeps the production from completely shedding the hoariness of “Our Town.” But on the positive side, the directors keep up a quick pace. By declining to linger even on emotional moments, they avoid sentimentality, as is essential to a successful production of this play.

This marks the second significant Chicago staging of the Wilder classic in the last year. The other, from director David Cromer, was an enormous hit locally and will open Off Broadway Feb. 26. The productions are quite different from one another — Cromer’s is more revelatory in terms of its stagecraft, while this Lookingglass staging finds insight in depicting a world that exists outside of time.

Our Town

Lookingglass Theater, Chicago; 230 seats; $60 top


A Lookingglass Theater Company presentation of a play in three acts by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro and Jessica Thebus.


Set, John Musial; costumes, Janice Pytel; lighting, J.R. Lederle; sound, Kevin O'Donnell; production stage manager, Sara Gmitter. Opened, reviewed Feb. 21, 2009. Runs through April 5. Running time: 2 HOURS.


Dr. Gibbs - David Catlin Mary Webb - Christine Mary Dunford Emily Webb - Laura Eason Simon Stimson - David Kersnar Rebecca Gibbs - Louise Lamson George Gibbs - David Schwimmer Stage Manager - Joey Slotnick Mrs. Gibbs - Heidi Stillman Mr. Webb - Andrew White
With: Thomas J. Cox, Kevin Douglas, Raymond Fox, Tracy Walsh.

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