Winesburg, Ohio, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. No one would ever confuse this suffocating Buckeye burg with the idyllic Grover's Corners, New Hampshire (though Sherwood Anderson's influence on the mood, characterization, even dialogue of Our Town is palpable). Eric Rosen's swift-moving but broadly drawn 70-minute stage adaptation faithfully reproduces Anderson's conditional compassion for small-town "grotesques," tenderly exploiting his hick stereotypes. This antinostalgic vision of a turn-of-the-century tank town includes a repressed minister, falsely accused pedophile, jilted girl, closet drunk, mercenary hotel keeper, horny schoolmarm, and ambitious reporter George Willard, who records their frustrations. Patrick Sarb plays the author's surrogate with wide-eyed wonder--the only innocence Anderson or Rosen allows.
George learns that a writer has "to know what people are thinking about." And there's no danger of our missing any subtext given the spell-it-out lyrics in Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's original folk songs. Jessica Thebus's staging for Steppenwolf's teen-oriented Arts Exchange program is strongest when the eight ensemble members convey the ballads' harmonies, reflecting the connectedness of the tales. Andrew White breathes wry wisdom as the efficient narrator, McKinley Carter brings unforced pathos to George's neglected mother, and Chris Farrell exudes midwestern brusqueness as his selfish dad. Amid some grandstanding performances (perhaps geared to the program's high school matinees), Kristina Martin and Lesley Bevan show comparative restraint as, respectively, the girl that got away and the schoolteacher who didn't.