“Our Suburb” at Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage

The start of a new month, and a new season, brings with it the annual Labor Day Page-to-Stage Festival at the Kennedy Center. Monday night’s reading of Darrah Cloud’s OUR SUBURB proved to be a wonderful kick-off; an extended sneak preview of our first world premiere of the new season which will open officially in December, 2013. Presented in the Ken Cen’s newly refurbished Theatre Lab on the 4th floor all while our season-opening production of Amy Herzog’s AFTER THE REVOLUTION was rehearsing on stage at the DCJCC, we were fortunate to have the entire 9 person cast, the entire design team, our playwright, and our great director Judith Ivey on hand for the afternoon long rehearsal process and the evening reading.
FINAL OUR SUBURB illustration
About 125 took in the 2-hour long 3 act homage to OUR TOWN. The response was engaged, full of humor, enchantment, stunned silences; a full-plate of theatrical and emotional dynamics. As to how the play pays tribute and simultaneously departs from Thornton Wilder’s original, we’re inviting our brand new student subscribers from the Universities of Michigan, California at Berkeley, and Notre Dame, to share some very first theater-going impressions, even before our first official class later this week. Last week, while I was still in Italy, syllabi were distributed for the course, “A Theatre of Politics and The Politics of Theatre” and students were encouraged to attend the Monday night reading. Many are reading OUR TOWN this week as well. In the comments section below, we’ll read a first round of comments from students soon to get a full-course immersion into the rich waters of DC Theater, with our focus this fall being The Family, the most political institution we know. The family will dominate our thinking this semester as we examine the social and political forces that shape and transform it; how those forces are internalized and re-enacted within the relationships we experience on stage.

As with all blog postings, we invite the community of Theater J e-readers to join our student subscribers in sharing thoughts and impressions about the work and its relationship to other work we’re reading and seeing around town. Our emphasis here is not on critiquing performance or pretending to evaluate talent, but rather to make notice of striking moments, resonant themes, surprises, questions, confusions, and above all, flashes of insight, all in a few hundred words (non-students can write as short as they like!).

Each week we’ll pull out an especially insightful comment and repost it as our “Blog of the Week.” This week’s kind of a preview/try-out week; consider it a pre-season blog and commentary. We’re just trying out responses. In time, confidence of voice and refinement of observation will come.

Until then, happy new season, and Happy Jewish New Year!  And Shanah Tova!

12 thoughts on ““Our Suburb” at Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage

  1. The reading of “Our Suburb” in the Kennedy Center’s Theatre Lab was my first opportunity to experience any form of live performance in the D.C. area. As someone who has never seen “Our Town,” I came into the reading with a completely open mind. The format of the reading confused me at the beginning, as two families stood side by side on stage, switching back and forth between conversations. However, I quickly realized the purpose of the back and forth action, as I became very aware of the similarities between the families, even with different religious backgrounds and different family relationships. There were meals cooked, conversations had, and kids sent to school. There were arguments, emotions, and above all, there were choices. Darrah Cloud’s creation has the ability to connect with every member of the audience, no matter how young or old. “Our Suburb” demonstrates the struggles of daily life, like choosing a college, dealing with gender or racial inequality, and the memories of the past that are still haunting in the present. The play takes place in Skokie, IL, a suburb with a rich history of Jewish culture and an awareness of the First Amendment and the possibility of neo-Nazis assembling. Although Judaism is an important component of the play, and also adds humor, there is a lack of focus on the neo-Nazi threats. The performance instead focuses on young love, the divisions existing in a community, and the repetition of ordinary life. As a young woman with a deep connection to my mother, I was intrigued by the relationship between Mrs. Major and her daughter, Thornton. I remembered the conversations with my mother concerning my college choice, my relationships, and my safety.

    A conversation that stuck with me throughout the play involved an exchange between Mrs. Major and Thornton.

    Thornton: “Everything’s wrong.”
    Mrs. Major: “That’s because you’re creative.”

    The short but insightful exchange took me by surprise. Being creative forces a person to look at the world from a different perspective. While some people crave that creative edge, it may not be all it’s cut out to be. Overall, Darrah Cloud’s “Our Suburb” is full of wisdom and quirkiness, including a conversation regarding death and meat butchering that is the epitome of originality and wit.

    • Catherine – It was really interesting to hear about how you related to the mother-daughter dynamic in the play, especially so because it was something that I had overlooked almost entirely and relegated to the background. After hearing your comment in class however, I begin to think more and more about the centrality of that dynamic to the play. And, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed as though it was the one unifying theme from beginning to end – Ricky and Thornton did not start out together, the Nazis do not make their entrance until relatively late in the play, etc., but there was always the relationship between Thornton and her mother, bookending the play almost. I also liked your note about the dialogue between Mrs. Major and Thornton regarding creativity. It was an interesting piece of dialogue that was perhaps viewed as insignificant to many audience members, but I think that it really helps to emphasize the struggle Thornton was going through, while also providing additional perspective into her outlook on school, Ricky, and her mother.

  2. The title of the play “Our Suburb” can be very misleading. The idea of “suburb” is usually associates with a peaceful and almost boring environment. On hearing the word “suburb,” I immediately picture average people living harmonious yet monotonous lives. But the play paints a completely opposite picture. It explores deeply into the lives of seemingly average people, digs up their painful stories and unfolds their dark secrets such as the romance between Thornton and Ricky, phone conversations between L.C and Mrs. Major, and Mr. Edelman selling non-koshered meat etc. Underneath the seemingly peaceful atmosphere of the suburban environment, I can sense a dark undertone creeping in. And the mood gets more and more ominous as the play progresses with gloomy themes such as disease and death appearing frequently in the 2nd and 3rd act.

    It is my first time attending a reading of a play. As I walk into the theater, the first thing that catches my eyes is the popcorn and chocolate pretzels placed on a stool on stage. I was confused. I did not know whether the snacks were a part of the props or if the director allowed actors to bring food to snack on. But as the play progresses, I begin to see the meaning of the snacks as a prop. As the Stage Manager munches nosily on the snacks throughout the play, I start to understand more about her character. The sporadic timing and careless manner of eating perfectly molds the characteristic of the extroverted, stressed out and frazzled Stage Manager. It also provides comic relief for the audience. I appreciate the way that the play “Our Suburb” uses creative ways to illustrate the subtleties of the different characters and their interactions.

    Granted the play is not a musical, strangely, it has a musical quality to it. Harmony and discord between characters’ interactions is presented both visually and audibly. The Stage Manager is positioned in the middle of the stage, separating the two very different yet similar families: Jewish and Christian. They may celebrate holidays differently, for example, on Christmas Eve, they sing different songs and eat different food; nevertheless, as they hear the news of Nazis heading to town, it becomes a hot topic of concern for both families. Also, when the characters’ roles are in play, performers would stand up to talk, otherwise, they sit down. So throughout the play, characters bob up and down like musical notes being played on a piano. Sometimes many characters rise and speak in unison, sometimes they chatter in discord, and other times only one person stands and speaks. The level of sound fluctuates in an almost lyrical manner, presenting the harmony and discord of the two families. Even though the setup of the stage is very simple, the sight and musical sound of the interactions between the different characters entrances me. The idea of life being music is also echoed in the 3rd act as the stage manager describes life.

    “Our souls are overpopulated with voices that argue and sing.
    At the center of the atom? It’s all song. Or maybe a part of a song that all the other atoms have a part of too, so that when they get together to create matter, it’s like the score to a film or a symphony or something. And there’s harmony and discord and–basically, all life is music.”

    • Amie – I love your connection between musical notes and the image of the characters bobbing up and down throughout the play. The play truly did have a musical quality to it. It’s interesting to think of harmony in two forms for only one play – as the romances act as a form of harmony, yet the play itself has a sense of harmony as well. The quote you chose for the closing of your post is perfect for tying the ideas together. The course of life is like an art form, as all of the events that occur throughout a lifetime come together to illustrate a story. It could be a piece of writing, an image, or as described in “Our Suburb,” it could be music. Life, like music and other forms of art, is not fully understood nor celebrated to the extent that it deserves. A person may only realize how beautiful life was when it is taken away, just as a person may only realize the beauty of a song once it ends.

    • When you pointed out that the play paints an opposite picture than your idea of a suburb, it reminded me of ABC’s show “Desperate Housewives.” Although the story lines differ greatly, the TV show also delves into the seemingly normal, boring lives of the families in the neighborhood, and brings up hidden secrets. Although some events are dark and gloomy, the show also employs humor and honest emotion in many different ways so that the overall feeling is positive. “Our Suburb” does much of the same thing. As you point out, there are secrets such as the conversations between L.C. and Mrs. Major, and the selling of non-koshered meat, but I would argue that the romance between Thornton and Ricky counters the negative feeling by being honest and open. It seemed readily accepted even though the Majors are Christian and the Edelmans are Jewish. Additionally, I believe that the humor provided by the Stage Manager served to lighten the mood and counter the dark secrecy.

  3. Going into the reading of “Our Suburb” at the Kennedy Center, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I don’t have much experience with plays or the theater, and I didn’t have any experience of viewing a reading. I felt a little bit nervous—sometimes plays are difficult enough to follow on their own, how was I going to understand everything with no one acting anything out?
    Leaving the theater, I was amazed by how much “life” the actors gave the performance just by the deliverance of their lines. After about five minutes, I had forgotten that I was viewing a reading, and was just as engrossed with the plot and the development of the characters as I would be watching an actual play.

    A tribute to “Our Town,” “Our Suburb” focuses on the developing relationship between Thornton and Ricky, with many backdrops—Thornton’s restlessness and indecisiveness about her suburb and where to attend college, her occasionally strained relationship with her mother, and of course, the prospect of Nazi’s coming to peaceful old Skokie to march (just to name a few). When Thornton’s untimely death shakes the community, characters are forced to grapple with the fleeting nature of life.

    I found the ending of “Our Suburb” to be especially poignant and a little haunting. When Thornton returns to her suburb, 20 years later, she is struck by the meaninglessness of the way people live their lives and wants to scream at them to start being alive. As LC and Ricky discuss things like football and furniture, Thornton cries out “Who cares?” But they can’t hear her; she’s dead. They continue to immerse themselves in the trivial things, and Ricky (after remarking that marriage wasn’t what he thought it would be) goes inside to watch football.

    I interpreted the conclusion of “Our Suburb” almost as a challenge: a challenge to really live, to love the people around you and cherish the moments that matter. While that sounds like a happy and cheesy message, the ending itself was quite dark—Thornton is dead and the rest of the suburb goes on without her, surrounded by the McDonalds, Burger Kings, Jack-in-the-Box’s, Dunkin Donuts and t Baskin-Robbins, and Walgreens that have come to define their suburb and (by extension) their existence. This made me question myself: How am I living? What do I care about? When I left the theater, I was a little disturbed, in a good way. These are crucial questions.

    • Hi Devin. I am glad you mentioned the haunting ending where Thorton oversees her friends and family as a ghost. The scene where she screams “who cares” when Ricky and L.C exchanges a rather trivial conversation on furniture and football is indeed powerful and the scene remains imprinted in my mind. Did Thornton wish to see Ricky talking about her, mourning her death? But wouldn’t it be more heartbreaking for Thornton to see her lover still mourning about her death even after 20 years? Imagine the sorrow and pain he would have to bear all these years. I think Thornton has a hard time realizing that the world is not about her and people must move on.

      This scene also reminds me of a Youtube video I watched called “The Time You Have in Jellybeans” by zefrank1. He estimates that there are about 28000 days in one’s lifetime. Taking away the time used to sleep, eat, clean, go to class and work, there is only around 2700 days left to do other things. In the remaining 2700 days of life, perhaps we do spend most of that precious time focusing on trivial things like furniture and football. But who is to say what is trivial and what is not? For example, ND students would not think football is trivial while others may not care about it at all. I guess it ultimately narrows to the question of what we value the most and the meaning of life. But that is just too stressful to think about and talk about in 150 words. All I know is that I definitely do not want to these 2700 days mourning the past.

  4. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a reading of the upcoming play Our Suburb, scripted by Darrah Cloud and based on the Thornton Wilder classic Our Town. Although it was my first interaction with theater in quite some time, it almost felt like coming home, as there was a time when I was deeply interested in the theater scene. Concerning Our Suburb itself, I enjoyed the reading very much in many parts, and not quite as much in a few others, both of which I attempt to briefly outline below.

    Despite retaining the same essential plot structure and employing several of the same literary devices, such as the interactive stage manager, it quickly became apparent to me that these were two quite different plays. To begin, Our Suburb was far more fast-paced and humorous than was Wilder’s play. I appreciated the humor and rapidity, but felt as though they may have begun to be overdone as the play proceeded into the second and third acts and the audience began to seek to identify more with the latent political discomfort present throughout and the life-changing events that take place in the latter half of the reading. For me personally, it felt as though the Jeopardy references went on just a little bit too long and as though the humor was strained and misplaced in the last one or two instances of those references.

    Another interesting difference to me between the two plays was that the impending Nazi march on Skokie added a subtle, politicized feeling of urgency and dread to Our Suburb that was not present in its predecessor. I believe that this notion of external conflict is a powerful one though and worth adding, as it helps to construct the idea that even though there are social and political forces that are at work daily and occur often outside of the average person’s control, those average persons’ lives continue in spite of them. I felt as though the play was attempting to frame the conflict present in both of the families’ households, as well as L.C.’s uncomfortable ruminations on the plight of African-Americans in U.S. during the late 1970’s, apart from the Nazis’ actions, something that I feel is a powerful idea. To explain, for me, the personal events that occurred in Our Suburb just happen to take place during an unfortunate political moment in that city’s history; they are not defined by it, but operate independent of it, around it, just as millions of Americans’ lives do today with the latest political problems.

    Moving past the Nazis, and their influence or lack of influence in the play, the fact that the love story which I understood as integral to the second act never seemed to develop fully left me somewhat confused as to whether Ricky and Thornton ever would have actually been married. Unfortunately, this uncertainty tainted the final act for me, as I found that without an understanding of their relationship, I could not entirely understand the emotions and actions of Ricky and Thornton. On the other hand, however, there was the quite interesting idea of Thornton moving forward in time, rather than backwards as her analogue did in Our Town. This idea of jumping into the future appealed to me greatly, as it seems to drive home the idea that time moves on constantly, inexorably, even after tragedies. To me, this communicates that the scant moments we are granted in this world are infinitely precious in a way which is perhaps even more effective than Wilder.

  5. “Our Suburb,” written by Darrah Cloud, is a homage to the famous “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. Although unfamiliar with the plays prior to the reading of “Our Suburb” at the Kennedy Center, I was able to draw similarities and differences once I read “Our Town.” Initially, I was puzzled by the role of the Stage Manager, who didn’t seem to play a substantial role in the storyline. It seemed as though her role should have been absorbed into the acting and the other characters, except that she was speaking lines as though she was a character herself. Eventually I realized that the Stage Manager is an important source of background information, as well as a source of comic relief. The observer is never absorbed too deeply into the plot due to the intermittent comments by the Stage Manager, which I believe was intentional to force the observer to reflect on the events happening.

    Although the setting of both plays was before my time, I felt more of an emotional connection to “Our Suburb” than “Our Town.” The latter was set in an earlier time period than the former, which consisted of very different customs and expectations. The citizens of the town grew up there, got married young, and then lived the rest of their lives in the same place. Very few people left for school, although George was considering it for a while. “Our Suburb” was more similar to my own life growing up. I grew up in a suburb of a small city, with neighbors I could see through my window, and the same friends throughout school. While my family life was not as strained as the Majors’, I identified strongly with Thornton Major in my desire to flee far away for college. I eventually decided to stay, much like Thornton, because I was not ready to leave yet.

    Darrah Cloud managed to incorporate many themes into her 2-hour play, including but not limited to religion, race, and life and death. These big issues aside, what struck me the most was the familiarity of the circumstances, and the ability of the characters and the script to draw me in and cause me to reflect on my own life. Overall, I was very pleased with my first experience at a play reading.

  6. Prior to attending the reading of “Our Suburb” by Darrah Cloud, I was uncertain of what my experience would entail. I expected to find a quaint older woman monotonously reading the script while attempting to portray each of the characters in the play. What I discovered, however, was to the contrary.

    Entering into the Theatre Lab of the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center, I was delighted to see ten chairs in the center of the stage, each of which was soon to be filled with vastly different characters. This was one of my favorite components of the play. No matter who attended the play, and how different each of the audience members were, there was a character in the play for each person in the audience to relate to.

    I soon realized that the chairs were divided between two families: The Majors, a disconnected Christian family, with a docile housewife and the Edelmans, a Jewish family led by two generations of strong outspoken women. Although in the first act, the families seemed rather different, I think that the stage manager in the 6th chair, playing a member of both families, as well as serving as a narrator in “Our Suburb” was meant to remind us of the similarities between the two. “Our Suburb” breaks down barriers, addressing issues such as race, neo-nazism, love, religion, and life. Although it focuses on these issues, I do believe that the play can benefit from divulging deeper into the resolutions of the issues of race and the assembling of the neo-Nazis. In my opinion, these issues seemed to be rushed. For example, the transformation of the character LC from a rather conservative pianist affirming that if the black man “wishes to have things the white man has,” he must solely obtain them, to a much more apathetic man indifferently believing “terrible shit happens and nobody, not even god, can do anything about it,” seemed rather confusing. In addition, the quick one sentence narration, “The Nazis will march and be turned back again and again and again” seemed rather anticlimactic for all of the buildup the neo-Nazi assembly had in the first two parts of the play.

    One of my favorite lines in the play comes at the end, delivered by the stage manager:

    STAGE MANAGER: If you really examine the strength of the human spirit, it’s hard to believe it just snaps out like a light at the end of a life. It finds another place to be, in other bodies. The living carry each one of us on. Life is heaven…

    This seems all too true. People spend the majority of their lives being complacent, spending far too much time thinking of their future and forgetting to enjoy their present. I, too, have fallen victim to this, focusing too heavily on what I will do and what I will become and forgetting to enjoy the life I presently have. As a junior in college, it is surreal to me that I have already completed two years of University, leaving me to question where the time has gone. “Our Suburb” teaches the importance of realizing that each day is blessing to be spent with the ones you love, doing what you love, and ultimately realizing that “Life is heaven.”

  7. Last week, after viewing the reading of OUR SURBURB, I found myself on the phone with a good friend of mine. He asked me what I spent the evening doing; I told him watching a play. He said, “If you could describe what the play’s really about in one phrase, what would you say?”. I paused for a moment. I am not known for my brevity so, actually, it was likely several.

    “Identity,” I said decisively after a moment. “It’s about how we struggle to develop our own in the face of others and how those others, at the same time, help us develop it.” To be sure, the play contained several characters with particular and unique dilemmas. True, Ricky and Thornton both face the dilemmas often associated with youth (who am I? Where do I belong in the world? Why does everyone have an opinion on where I belong? Can my sibling stop being such a brat?); but, it wasn’t so much them who captured my attention as their mothers.

    As I child, I remember feeling certain that once I became an “adult” something magic would happen and I’d know exactly who I was. That notion is something, even adults struggle with and to some extent it is a notion that Mrs. Major struggles with basic fulfilment causing those around her to speculate on what she wants. In an opening scene, she sits having breakfast with her husband who asks her about her plans, then promptly cuts her off. She sits silently at that point, much to his confusion; but, really this to me was the beginning of a pattern of resigning herself to life. A life she felt she couldn’t change. Yet, what the story revealed, at least to me, was that Mrs. Major really just wanted to be listened to. She wanted to be respected and the few moments she felt that were during her conversations with L.C.. Mrs. Major, to me, seems surrounded by people who she feels don’t want to understand or can’t understand. Later in the play, it seems her fight for her daughter to go to college seems to me a fight for her own identity.

    Mrs. Edelman faces a dual identity of her own. As a first generation American born Jew, she must balance her tarditional heritage with the values instilled in her by another culture. There are several moments in the play when that becomes apparent. The first of these moments, she is responding to a question from the audience on why she chose to live in Skokie, she says: “I didn’t move here for a better life…after everything my parents went through, I consider any life a victory.” Her heritage influences her decisions, her identity. Yet, she also feels she must separate herself from that to make her own. Later in the play, while her mother admantly demands she stop the march of the Nazis, Mrs. Edelman choses to take a different route. She notes that she beleives that everyone should have a chance to speak, even if it makes her uncomfotable.

    Sometimes it isn’t so much the large events that define us. It is the struggles of everyday and those we surround ourselves with. When you turn eighteen, no one waves a magic wand which allows you all the wisdom of an adult. It is a culmination of events not just in your life, but in your family’s as we learn from the interactions between mother and daughter in boths families. You have to learn that wisdom through the choices you make every day.

  8. After attending a reading of Darrah Cloud’s OUR SUBURB with little prior theater experience and minimal expectations, I left the Kennedy Center feeling I experienced an insightful engagement with the production, absent scenery, staging, and physical interaction between the performers. What I found most insightful—amidst the surprising and initially confusing comic relief provided by the sporadic stage manage character—was the subtle duality of light and darkness that was achieved via the expositional context of the Nazi march on Skokie, the budding and honest young romance between Ricky and Thornton, the bright prospective future for Thornton and her eventual tragic death, the secret phone conversations between L.C. and Mrs. Major, and the salient characteristics the two families retained.

    Moreover, what makes this duality enticing for audiences is the suburban setting and the familial ties that are explored. We can all relate in some fashion to a peaceful suburban environment like Skokie, a young romance we have experienced, or perhaps an eccentric family relative like Mrs. Witcoff. In the foreground of the drama are two families: the Majors, a dysfunctional Christian family with an unassuming housewife, and the Edelmans, a traditional Jewish family dominated by two generations of forthright women. This provided an excellent opportunity to examine the family as an institution in it of itself, a topic us students will be exploring further in many Theater J productions.

    The effect of such a duality is the invocation of a genuine reflection on the joys and sorrows of life as well as the fleeting nature of life itself. The drama legitimizes our introspection. It makes our reflection real. The seemingly average suburbanites of Skokie indeed have painful stories that make us dig up our painful stories. In class, we likened this function of the production to picking at a scab, something that we are told from an early age not to do but, at times, feel an obscure and dark thrill from doing so. A powerful resolution in the drama that culminates its introspective effect is the return of Thornton, now dead and powerless over the mundane affairs of her suburb. Thornton is indignant when she sees the lack of purpose in the way the people of Skokie are living their lives and she is tragically powerless, rendering her exhortations meaningless in what is a powerful final reminder to reexamine our familial relationships, our hopes and our sorrows, and our pursuit for self-actualization.

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