To get an idea of how wide the divide between Chicago’s urban denizens and suburbanites can be, just consider the tagline for the Berwyn Development Corporation’s current ad campaign: “Berwyn: Nothing like a suburb.” Really? Nothing? Methinks the west-of-Cicero community doth protest too much.
And when did “suburb”—a term associated with high-ranking schools and well-tended lawns—become a slur? Increasingly, to young eyes, it seems, the once idyllic embodiment of the American dream has become the dull and sober land of mortgages, car payments, church services, medical offices, and dutiful midwestern settling down.
Naperville-born Mat Smart both indulges in and refutes some of those stereotypes in this heartfelt, Naperville-set 2014 comic drama, now receiving a handsome homecoming of its own at Theater Wit.
Howard, an early thirtysomething played by Mike Tepeli, puts his life on hold and flies back to Naperville from Seattle to aid his mother after she loses her vision in an accident. Over the course of a day in a strip-mall Caribou Coffee, mother and son hash out the needs of her new, less-independent life and their implications for his dreams of living on the west coast. Smart lightens the mood with a revolving door’s worth of earnest locals, including a recently divorced high school crush (Abby Pierce) for Howard to (re)meet cute with, a benevolent churchgoing goober (Charlie Strater), and a barista (Andrew Jessop) who’s out to prove there’s as much pride to be had in being a manager at a franchise as there is at an easier-to-romanticize independent shop.
Jeremy Wechsler‘s production showcases some honest, understated scene work between Tepeli and Laura T. Fisher, who plays the mother, and is particularly effective in its depiction of the way parents and their grown children can slip back into old personality patterns when reunited. The shift in dynamics between the two now that the role of caretaker has reversed is similarly powerful and affecting.
And over and above the romantic angle, Tepeli and Pierce create a moving bond over finding themselves in the same pre-middle-age existential limbo, even if her big conflict—stuck creatively, she’s fiddling around with a podcast on Naperville’s pioneer namesake, Joseph Naper—doesn’t yield much of interest.
In the past I’ve found myself put off by overtidy plots and twee devices in Smart’s work (e.g., The 13th of Paris, Samuel J. and K.). Here the parallels between the Napervillians and Captain Naper are strained, and the climactic scene (I won’t give it away) is twee as hell. The result is as sickly sweet as a shot of agave nectar.
Still, Smart and Wechsler make a strong case for pushing back against antisuburban snobbery. For folks willing to look, they argue, there’s plenty of life beyond the city limits. v