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This Play Truly Sees the Suburbs

By: Kenneth Jones
Date: Nov 18, 2014

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It seems inevitable that at some point in a playwright's career, the imagination will be tugged homeward toward the people, places, and conflicts responsible for shaping the writer. Look at Eugene O'Neill's plays set in Connecticut, August Wilson's in Pittsburgh, Horton Foote's in Texas.

Mat Smart, who was born and raised in Naperville, IL, thirty-five miles southwest of Chicago, has been feeling that magnetic pull. Recently, when he and his three fellow co-artistic directors of Slant Theatre Project were looking toward the company's current tenth anniversary season, he pitched an idea about his hometown.

"I write a play when I have a question I don't know the answer to," Smart says. "My [parents] are both getting older. I never have as much time with them as I'd like. How can I be there for them when I live so far away? Is following my dream here in New York City a selfish act? How can I find a balance? I guess that's three questions."

Spurred by those problems, Smart wrote Naperville, running Nov. 20-Dec. 6 at the June Havoc Theatre. The comedy features thirty-two-year-old Howard (played by Slant co-artistic director Matt Dellapina) returning to Illinois from his West Coast job to tend to his mother, Candice, who has recently gone blind from a fall at home. The play is set in a franchise coffeehouse populated by a handful of quirky-sad residents who are reaching to find purpose, community, and meaning in their lives.

"A lot of the play is inspired by my own experiences, my friends and family," says Smart, who adds that much of it is also invented.

Smart knew at the start that he didn't want to criticize people from "flyover" states. He wanted to embrace them.

"Too often, people dismiss the suburbs as entirely homogeneous---everyone goes to the same chain stores, everyone lives in the same cookie-cutter houses, everyone drives the same SUVs," he observes. "I absolutely refute that. The suburbs are full of diverse, fascinating, beautiful people. Every day I was challenged. Every day I was inspired. I never say I'm from Chicago. I always say I'm from a suburb of Chicago called Naperville."

Mat Smart (center) in rehearsal for Naperville

Smart's mom and friends still live in that suburb, and he visits two or three times a year. However, his script is more than a valentine. It colors the characters with shades of regret and uncertainty.

As a show of local pride and to illustrate the characters' aspirational yearning, Smart also conjures real-life hometown hero Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic figure skating champion. The gold medalist's offstage presence underscores a central discussion in the play: What is greatness and does it live here?

"Evan Lysacek is Naperville royalty," Smart says. "When he beat [Evgeni] Plushenko for the gold in 2010, I was ecstatic. I felt an irrational amount of pride."

Smart says that lessons in local heritage are part of any upbringing in Naperville (current population about 145,000). Every kid who grows up there takes a school trip to Naper Settlement, a 12-acre living history museum recreating pioneer life of the 1830s, when Captain Joseph Naper founded the town. Like Lysacek, Naper is an important force in the play.

"I remember painting a fence white, churning butter, and talking to volunteers dressed as pioneers---who were very committed to staying in character," Smart says. "Like Howard in the play, the only thing I remembered about Joe Naper was that he had a mustache."

Steeped though he was in his place of birth, where he lived until he left to study theatre at the University of Evansville---where he would meet future Slant co-artistic directors Adam Knight and Wes Grantom---Smart still dipped into research about the city.

"When I started researching random things for the play, I learned that Naper was a shipbuilder by trade," Smart says. "I loved that. A shipbuilder who founded a town thirty-five miles inland from Lake Michigan. And shockingly, he didn't have a mustache."

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Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist. He also writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Kenneth Jones