New play will bring Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks,’ one of Art Institute’s most popular paintings, to theatrical life

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A little boy was trying energetically to climb atop one of the two lions that have long “guarded” the Art Institute as people poured through the doors on Saturday, becoming the latest of the millions of people who have gotten pleasure from the art inside.

Some of those creations have provided inspiration for artists in other realms — writers, musicians, playwrights — and the latest of these is June Sawyers, who has created a show titled “Nighthawks: A Theatrical Meditation on Solitude and Loneliness.”

“I call it a hybrid theater piece,” she says. “It is meant to establish a mood of loneliness and solitude. That for me is the essence of the painting.”

She does not remember the first time she saw Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” currently located in the Arts of the Americas-Gallery 262. But, she says, “It has always haunted me. It is my favorite American painting.”

Sawyers was born in Scotland but has long been a Chicago literary lion, one of our town’s most prolific writers, editors and teachers. She has written for the Tribune and many other publications. She has written a lot of books, some about her native land and some about the music of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. But most have been firmly focused on our city, its history and its colorful characters.

Here is but a sampling, and a small one, of some of them: “The Scottish Bed and Breakfast Book,” “The Chicago Arts Guide,” “Bob Dylan: New York,” “Famous Firsts of Scottish-Americans,” and two editions of “Chicago Portraits” (I wrote a foreword to the 2012 edition).

This latest work is her attempt to bring Hopper’s 1942 iconic painting to life through the intersection of music, poetry and fiction. Bookended by the songs of Tom Waits and incorporating the work of Ernest Hemingway and Stuart Dybek, among others, the show will be directed by J.R. Sullivan and will star Chicago actors Si Osborne as Edward Hopper and Amy Montgomery as his wife and fellow artist, Jo Hopper, who is the model for the red-haired woman in the painting.

“We were set to present it in 2019 but then COVID arrived,” said Sawyers. “That delayed the production and I have been tweaking it ever since, bringing the painting’s characters to life.”

She knows well the effect the painting had on Dybek, Chicago’s own and arguably the greatest short story writer of his generation. The painting is in his masterful 1990 collection of stories, “The Coast of Chicago.” It is the title of one of the stories and in it, the story’s narrator stands in front of the painting, closes his eyes and thinks to himself. As Dybek writes, ’'It was night in Hopper’s painting; the diner illuminated the dark city corner with a stark light it didn’t seem capable of throwing on its own. Three customers sat at the counter as if waiting, not for something to begin, but rather to end, and I knew how effortless it would be to open my eyes and find myself waiting there, too.’'

“Nighthawks” is among the most famous and beloved painting in the Art Institute. It was purchased within months of its completion in 1942. The Art Institute bought it for $3,000.

Another, perhaps even more famous and influential painting inside the Art Institute (Painting and Sculpture of Europe-Gallery 240), is “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884.” It took artist George Seurat until 1886 to complete the work and it is better known in its English translation as “Sunday in the Park.” It has been in the Art Institute’s collection since 1926.

In the early 1980s a couple of men could often be seen staring at the painting. They were composer Stephen Sondheim and lyricist James Lapine, who would use the painting as the basis and inspiration for their 1984 Broadway musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” which tells a fictionalized story of the painting’s creation.

The collaborative work, which Lapine also directed, won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two Tony Awards and a pile of other honors. Its original stars were (Chicago born) Mandy Patinkin as George and Bernadette Peters as his longtime mistress, Dot.

Reviewing the original show for the Tribune in 1984, then chief critic Richard Christiansen wrote, among many praiseful words, of the show’s “ravishing visual designs” which raise it to “spectacular musical theater”, and he called it a “sleek wonder of stagecraft … but also a show of deep feelings on life and art, and it is a passionate commitment that carries it through to triumph.” It has been remounted many times through the decades.

The world premiere of “Nighthawks” will be at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Oak Park Brewing Company, a fine place but one that does not look very much like Hopper’s diner, which he said was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.”

Its seating capacity is 70 and Don Evans, founding executive editor of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, feels that will create “a wonderful intimacy and prompt a lot of conversation.” Tickets are $20 and patrons will be encouraged to share their thoughts after the performance.

The painting has long prompted conversations as, of course, has Hemingway.

Many Hopper experts, including biographer Gail Levin, has said, mincing no words, “‘Nighthawks was inspired by Hemingway’s short story ‘The Killers,’ which Hopper read in Scribner’s magazine and liked so much when it first came out, that he wrote a fan letter to Scribner’s.”

Sawyers and Hemingway have “collaborated” before, in 2019′s “Now I Lay Me Down,” a dramatic reading adapted by Sawyers based on Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and some of his other writings, including his letters. It was also directed by Osborne and presented at Hamburger Mary’s Show Lounge in Oak Park.

Evans has read the play and is very enthusiastic about it. The LHOF is one of the show’s presenters, along with the Oak Park Brewing Company, Phantom Collective and the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. Osborne, who has also read the play, believes it has a future.

Whatever its theatrical fate, know that the painting will remain on the Art Institute’s wall, prompting all manner of feelings and emotions. The artist claimed that he never infused the painting with symbols but did say, “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Sarah Kelly Oehler, the Field-McCormick chair and curator, Arts of the Americas, has been at the Art Institute since 2002. She knows the painting well and in a fine essay about it, she writes, that its “enduring popularity can be explained because of its subtle critique of the modern world, the world in which we all live. Despite its surface beauty, this world is one measured in cups of coffee, imbued with an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and a deep desire, but ultimate inability, to connect with those around us.”

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