But the most marked changes are in the staging. In 2015, Wechsler set Act I in a forest; now, it opens on the characters huddled around a pile of burning chairs in a backyard. It is also set later in the year, with how people passed time during the pandemic in mind. “Act I is really, ‘How We Spent the Winter,’” he said.
Earlier productions I saw dragged at times in Act II, but Wechsler’s new staging of it is ragged and brisk. “There is a shared sense of a new normal and managing dreams, the things the characters talk about, like the fires and the grid going down, have already happened,” he said. “I wanted that ‘Let’s put on a show’ spirit in desperate circumstances.” He was inspired in part, he said, by things that he had previously taken for granted, such as friendly visits and birthday parties, becoming difficult during the pandemic.
Wechsler also updated the poignant and hilarious “Chart hits” medley, in which the actors perform (and flub) lines from pop songs. He added snippets from Billie Eilish, Lorde and Taylor Swift. Act III, too, has transformed: Its ceremonial theater piece seemed sharper, or maybe I understood better that we need the grandeur of a chanting masked chorus to communicate apocalyptic horror.
In that scene, the actors also used details from their lives during the pandemic. Leslie Ann Sheppard, who plays Bart Simpson, said in an interview: “We incorporated a little bit more of the coughing and ‘Stay away from me. We need to cover our faces.’”
During one striking moment of Act III, Jenny reads the names of people who have died. “When we first did the show in 2015, we would sing audience members’ names that were there that evening,” Wechsler said. “This was arresting in its way, but too anxiety-producing and flip after the last 18 months.”
Now the names include those in the script, as well as theater luminaries who have died — not just from Covid-19 — including the Chicago actor Johnny Lee Davenport and the Organic Theater founder Stuart Gordon.
Later in Act III, Mr. Burns brutally murders Homer, Marge and Lisa, and then Bart seems to kill the villain. But when the lights come on, Mr. Burns is not dead. The last moment reveals him pedaling more and more slowly on a stationary bike hooked up to a generator. It’s an image that “is uncertain,” Washburn said. “It can toggle more difficult or more heartening.”