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The Goodman Theatre revives Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker

David Dudley spoke with director Henry Wishcamper and cast members Anita Hollander and Sydney Germaine about their process creating The Matchmaker show at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois.

Director Henry Wishcamper in rehearsal for The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder at Goodman Theatre.

David Dudley Why perform The Matchmaker in 2016? What about the piece speaks to the present moment?

Henry Wishcamper: Wilder called the play a “farce with social implications.” The play began in the late 1930s as The Merchant of Yonkers which quickly closed on Broadway. He then returned to it in the 1950s in a rewritten version called The Matchmaker starring Ruth Gordon which became a tremendous success. When he first starting writing it in the 30s, he had grown frustrated by the popularity of the hyper-realism of the Group Theatre and their focus on topical political subject matter. Wilder chose to look to an earlier time and an older, more theatrical form—the farce—in order to make points about his own culture and the universal human experience that he thought were beyond the scope of realism and topical political theatre. In a similar fashion, I wanted this production to take a lesser known play by one of our greatest writers in one of the great theatrical genres and use it to look at issues in contemporary American society.

Anita Hollander: The human condition is universal and being human is funny. In The Matchmaker, Thornton Wilder exploited many of the elements that make watching humans from the safety of the audience hilarious and moving. When Horace Vandergelder says “if women could harness their powers away from a home and a baby carriage, they'd change the world,” it makes me think of Donald Trump. When Irene says “The world is full of wonderful things,” it would take a heart of stone not to be moved. I think we all have discovered at one moment or another that this play is as relevant to 2016 as it was to Wilder's time.

Sydney Germaine: I'm paraphrasing, but, when Henry and I met up several months ago to talk about the project, one of the things he mentioned was wanting the cast to be an accurate representation of the diversity of the population—that speaks to the right now.

David: Mr. Wishcamper, can you talk about your approach to casting this piece? How does it alter (if at all) the meaning of The Matchmaker?

Henry: The New York City of the 1880s that Wilder creates for The Matchmaker is a very diverse cultural environment. People from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic classes not only live amongst each other, but interact in a wide variety of ways that I think we often imagine did not occur at this point in American history. Inclusive casting is now standard practice with some varieties of classical theatre. But there still seems to be resistance to the idea of inclusive casting in many productions of mid-20th century American plays. I believe that our preconceived notions of what is “realistic” is often more limited than either the imagination of contemporary audiences, or historical reality. I don’t think our casting choices alter the meaning of Mr. Wilder’s play.

I believe that our preconceived notions of what is ‘realistic’ is often more limited than either the imagination of contemporary audiences, or historical reality.

David: What does this play mean to you?

Anita: The play speaks to me about risk—my own willingness in life to take risk after risk, knowing that as a one-legged actress, what I'm trying to do is virtually impossible. And yet, once I've taken the leap, I find myself playing a tap-dancing nun, or three-legged cat, or Emma Goldman, or Fraulein Schneider, the list goes on! I think this play is about the rewards of taking risks.

Henry: All of the characters start the play at a point in their lives where they are stuck. On the day of the play, each of these people have reached a point that they can no longer stand remaining stuck. They all want to “break out like a fire engine” to use Irene Molloy’s words. Given the lack of a social safety net that exists at the time, the consequences they face are dire: they could lose their jobs, they could face complete social disgrace; they could literally starve to death. But for each of these characters the alternative of continuing to lead an unfulfilled, lonely life is worse.

The play speaks to me about risk—my own willingness in life to take risk after risk, knowing that as a one-legged actress, what I'm trying to do is virtually impossible.

David: How do you think Mr. Wilder would respond, if he saw a performance of The Goodman's The Matchmaker? Do you think that you've been faithful to his text, and/ or his intentions?

Henry: I wouldn't want to speculate but my hope is that our production of his play would feel as natural and appropriate to him as it does to me.

Sydney: I think he would be very surprised. His nephew did come to see the show and loved it; I'd like to think Thornton would be puzzled at first, then enjoy it.

Anita: I think Mr. Wilder would be delighted. No matter who we are as cast members, we've all taken what we do expressly from the text.

A man sitting on a chair
Anita Hollander (Gertrude), Allen Gilmore (Horace Vandergelder), and Ron E. Rains (Joe Scanlon) in The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder.

David: How would you describe your approach to your respective roles on the play?

Sydney: My approach started with doing a lot of research into the time period, Thornton Wilder's other work, then I realized I was thinking too much and not doing. Then I was trying to “perform woman” and realizing I just needed to be myself. Saying yes. Letting Wilder's words do the work.

Anita: For the Harmonia Gardens musician I practiced piano one-to-three hours per  day. For Gertrude, I tried doing everything that amuses me (she's hilarious), and worked my arm muscles to prepare to use the antique wheelchair. As the Cook, my approach was really to respond to tand play with the character of Miss Van Huysen.

woman playing guitar
Ron E. Rains (Joe Scanlon/August) and Sydney Germaine (Minnie Fay) in The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder.

David: In your opinion, is there an opposition between the play's bent towards marriage, and Barnaby's final speech about having more adventures in life?

Anita: Well, I've been married now for twenty-nine years, with a twenty-six year-old daughter, while pursuing acting and it’s been one hell of an adventure. I see no opposition at all!

Sydney: I think for many of the characters, marriage is part of that adventure—you're choosing to be with someone else, someone else you cannot control no matter how hard you try. All the characters take a little risk, then a little more risk, which ultimately leads to taking a big risk..

Henry: In his speech, Barnaby wishes that the audience finds the perfect balance between sitting quietly at home and having adventures. I think it is reminder that our time on this planet is short and that we need to continue to push ourselves to lead fulfilled, authentic lives whatever that means for each of us individually. For many that means marriage—which doesn’t feel to me like it is at all in opposition to the idea of adventure. But I also think it is significant that Barnaby and Minnie Fay do not end up getting married—or even romantically involved with one another. In most comedies all possible couples would marry at the end. Over the course of the play, both characters experience a tremendous expansion in their understanding of themselves and the opportunities that are available to them. They also seem to have moments of great recognition of one another. But, like Wilder himself, they don’t end up getting married.

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