Something Wilder: Confronting Midlife via "Our Town" at Lookingglass
Company members mentioned in this article: David Catlin, David Schwimmer, David Kersnar, Laura Eason, Heidi Stillman, Joey Slotnick, Tracy Walsh, Christine Mary Dunford, Thomas J Cox, Andy White, Raymond Fox, Kevin Douglas and Louise Lamson
by Dennis Polkow
Relaxing backstage on a break between rehearsals, you barely have a chance to ask if the Lookingglass production of âOur Townâ coming on the heels of the much-acclaimed David Cromer production that began at the Hypocrites last year and is opening next week in New York is a coincidence before co-directors Anna D. Shapiro, 2008 Tony Award winner for âAugust: Osage County,â and Jessica Thebus, both nod their heads in unison.
Shapiro offers that two productions so close together may only seem odd to âthose of us who live and breathe theater rather than for ordinary people with a life who may like theater, but who probably have one theater that they principally go to.â Did either of them see the Hypocritesâ production? âOh, sure,â says Thebus, âwe went together. It was a beautiful production and very inspiring.â Did it confirm anything that the pair mightâor might notâdo in their own production? Long pause, broken by Shapiro: âYes, and yes, though we would never tell you what those might be.â âDitto,â shoots back Thebus. âKeep in mind,â says Shapiro, âwe are all good friends. David and I went to school together back to high school and we cheer one another on. This is not competitive like sports: David texted the day we began rehearsals and wished us well, and I said, âGee, itâs going so well, is it really this easy?â and heâs like, âThatâs the secret, itâs like singing âDanny Boy,â you really canât screw it up.â â
Contrary to the notion that the pair are bringing ânew life to an old chestnut,â Shapiro and Thebus say they have always been fascinated with âOur Town,â ever since they first read it back in high school. âI never thought this was anything less than a great play,â says Shapiro. âEven seeing a high-school production reduces me to crippled weeping. I have been trying to get my students to direct it forever, but they didnât know how great it is. Now, they are all going to want to do it.â âIt is iconic,â agrees Thebus; âlike the Bible or Shakespeare.â
So why do âOur Townâ at Lookingglass and not Steppenwolf, where Shapiro is ensemble member and where Thebus is artistic associate? âItâs not what people might think, namely that no one at Steppenwolf wanted to do it,â offers Shapiro. âThe fact is, everyone wanted to do it, and there were three people with their hands up ahead of me who havenât gotten it together yet, so it would be a long, long wait there. Iâm not big enough.â Even with a shiny new Tony Award? âIâm not big enough physically,â Shapiro jokes.
And why do it together? âWe are both huge devotees of the play,â says Shapiro, and both teach it at Northwestern and have always loved it. âWe have a common vision,â says Thebus, Shapiro cutting in, âand mutual respect and friendship. Together, there is more dynamism and because there are two of us, everything is an external conversation, which is great. Usually, directing a show is a very solitary and lonely experience, but the chance to do this together makes this very special. We will probably write a book on the process of putting this together,Â it has been that fascinating.â
âYou read it one way when youâre very young,â muses Thebus, âbut as youâre older, another layer of meaning emerges and you think, âAh, thatâs what that line means.â âThere is a power there, in coming back to something familiar from when we are young and revisiting it in a whole new way,â says Shapiro. âAnd here is this company [Lookingglass] that is now 20 years old and the folks all went to college together so are already a close community and all of us, including David [Cromer], are exactly the same age now and at the same point in the arc of our lives where life and death are on our minds and we are seeing that from the prism of this play.â
Does casting David Schwimmer of âFriendsâ fame as George Gibbs, though, carry a risk of pop-culture recognition something akin to Daniel Radcliffe of âHarry Potterâ fame doing âEquus?â âLet me tell you,â scolds Shapiro, âthat kid [Radcliffe] was amazing. This is Chicago, and I think most people know, or should know, that David was a theater actor here long before television found him. We should all be so multi-talented.â
Shapiroâs own success with âAugust: Osage County,â which won her the 2008 Tony Award for Best Director and is still running on Broadway and in London but will begin a national tour in July is no less impressive. âThe rhythm of the life of a theater director is such that you start a project and you end a project, but this keeps sprouting elsewhere,â Shapiro says of her decision. âDonât get me wrong: I am enormously grateful for this association and for what this show has achieved and really do think that every actor involved with it should get a house and a car."