Memorable Productions: Biographical Plays

What do a chef, a writer, a psychoanalyst, a composer, a social activist, a general, a chemist, a photojournalist, a newspaper columnist, and an astronomer have in common? Each is the subject of one of our favorite shows about real people.

(in chronological order by production)

Scene from TimeLine Theatre's To Master the Art
Scene from TimeLine Theatre’s To Master the Art (photo by Lara Goetsch)

To Master the Art by William Brown and Doug Frew, produced by TimeLine Theatre in 2010 and 2013 (with Karen Janes Woditsch as Julia Child): Writing a play about an iconic figure like Julia Child implies some expectation that you can effectively cast the lead role. As co-playwright and director William Brown said in an interview published in Timeline’s Study Guide for the play, “Karen is to Julia what Vivien Leigh was to Scarlett O’Hara. A perfect match.” We were fascinated to learn the personal and political backstory preceding those early cooking shows that we and millions of others enjoyed on PBS, as the play recounted Child’s days in Paris, when she first discovered the charms of French cuisine.

Edward Karch and Megan Kohl in Caffeine Theatre's Or,
Edward Karch and Megan Kohl in Caffeine Theatre’s Or, (photo by Jason Beck)

Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, produced by Caffeine Theatre in 2011 (with Megan Kohl as Aphra Behn): When you’re writing a play set in the late 1660s about the first professional female playwright, a lot of details about the historical character’s life are left to the playwright’s imagination. Liz Duffy Adams fills in the blanks with a delightful farce, involving quick changes, clever language, a revolving door of lovers, and King Charles II. Caffeine Theatre’s production, directed by Catherine Weidner, demonstrated how great theatre can exist on a small budget, as long as you have an imaginative play, accomplished acting, and ingenious set and costume design! We enjoyed this show so much that we caught it a second time when it was remounted a few months later at Theater on the Lake.

Mike Nussbaum and Coburn Goss in Freud's Last Session at the Mercury Theater
Mike Nussbaum and Coburn Goss in Freud’s Last Session at the Mercury Theater (photo by Peter Coombs)

Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, produced by Mercury Theater in 2012 (with Mike Nussbaum as Sigmund Freud and Coburn Goss as C. S. Lewis): This provocative play enabled the audience to eavesdrop on a passionate but civilized clash of two world views, in an imagined meeting of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis on the eve of England’s entry into WWII. Like every performance we’ve seen by Mike Nussbaum, his characterization of Freud was immaculately crafted, with timing and demeanor that captured every nuance of the character’s physical and emotional state. (Incidentally, this will probably be the only production ever in which the 83-old Freud is played by an actor five years his senior.) Coburn Goss played C. S. Lewis, Freud’s guest and debating partner, with similar craftsmanship to convey the complexities of the man, from empathy to self-satisfaction. Under the direction of Tyler Marchant, Nussbaum and Goss gave the audience much to ponder in this what-if-Freud-and-Lewis-had-met great debate of life’s big issues.

Scene from TimeLine Theatre's 33 Variations
Scene from TimeLine Theatre’s 33 Variations (photo by Lara Goetsch)

33 Variations by Moises Kaufman, produced by TimeLine Theatre in 2012 (with Terry Hamilton as Beethoven, Michael Kingston as Diabelli, and pianist George Lepauw or Igor Lipinski playing excerpts from Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on stage at various points during the show): Exploring why an artist chooses his subjects is always intriguing, but particularly so in the case of Beethoven and the Diabelli Variations. As playwright Kaufman explains, “This piece has baffled musicologists for decades as it was inspired by a less than stellar waltz composed by the less than stellar music publisher Antonio Diabelli.” Directed by Nick Bowling, the TimeLine production featured an exquisite ensemble, including Janet Ulrich Brooks and Jesse Fisher as the play’s central musicologist and her daughter. And kudos to TimeLine for providing a full-size concert grand for the on-stage pianist to play, partnering with Steinway and Sons, Chicago, and crediting the piano tuner (Charles Terr) in the program.

Scene from 33 Variations at the Station Theatre
Scene from 33 Variations at the Station Theatre (photo by Alisa Greene)
Moises Kaufman with U of Illinois musicology professors Katherine Syer and William Kinderman
Moises Kaufman with U of Illinois musicology professors Katherine Syer and William Kinderman (photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

At the time we saw the TimeLine production, we didn’t realize that the playwright, the play, and even certain characters have a strong connection to Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois. We learned that fascinating story in 2015, on the occasion of the Station Theatre’s production of 33 Variations (with Randy Offner as Beethoven, William Sebastan Rose II as Diabelli, and Stephanie Swearingen as pianist), directed by Thom Schnarre. Kaufman consulted extensively with University of Illinois musicologists Dr. William Kinderman (the foremost scholar on the Diabelli Variations) and his wife Dr. Katherine Syer (an artistic advisor to the original production of 33 Variations), workshopped the play at the University, and based the play’s musicologist Katherine (the part played by Janet Ulrich Brooks at TimeLine) on a composite of Kinderman and Syer.

Interesting notes: The New Yorker did a lovely piece chronicling the experiences of Dr. Kinderman and Dr. Syer in attending the Broadway opening of 33 Variations. For those interested in more Beethoven, Dr. Kinderman’s 2014 Chicago Humanities Festival lecture/performance entitled Les Adieux: Beethoven’s Farewells is available online.

David Alan Anderson and Lisa Beasley in The Mountaintop at Court Theatre
David Alan Anderson and Lisa Beasley in The Mountaintop at Court Theatre (photo by Michael Brosilow)

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, produced by Court Theatre in 2013 (with David Alan Anderson as Martin Luther King Jr.): The intro to a 2011 interview in the Juilliard Journal with playwright Hall explained that the play was inspired by her “mother’s stories about how her own mother, worried about violence, cautioned her not to attend what would be King’s last speech, on April 3, 1968.” Hall went on to create a play that reimagined Dr. King’s last night on earth, portraying not only the great civil rights leader but also the human embodiment of the man. The production at Court Theatre, directed by Ron OJ Parson, brought those last hours to vivid life, with wholly believable and engrossing acting by David Alan Anderson and Lisa Beasley. A particularly appealing feature of performances at Court Theatre is the diversity of both the performers on stage and the audiences. About a year after seeing The Mountaintop at Court, we saw another excellent production at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, but the number of non-white people in the audience barely exceeded the number in the cast.

Tosin Morohunfola and Greg Vinkler in Butler at Northlight
Tosin Morohunfola and Greg Vinkler in Butler at Northlight (photo by Michael Brosilow)

Butler by Richard Strand, produced by Northlight Theatre in 2016 (with Greg Vinkler as Major General Benjamin F. Butler): A historical footnote can be the springboard for a fascinating play. Amelia by Alex Webb (included in our list of plays we’d like to see in Chicago) is one such example. Butler is an equally captivating story from early in the Civil War. Irascible Major General Benjamin Butler was an attorney before the war, and used that know-how to justify giving three escaped slaves sanctuary (as “contraband of war“) rather than return them to the Confederacy (as required by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). In Northlight’s production, directed by Stuart Carden, a quartet of actors in top form (Greg Vinkler, Tosin Morohunfola, Nate Burger, and Tim Monsion) brilliantly played out this battle of wits to its ironic conclusion.

Robert Kaercher and Lindsey Dorcus in Photograph 51 by 20% Theatre Company
Robert Kaercher and Lindsey Dorcus in Photograph 51 by 20% Theatre Company (photo by Ashley Ann Woods)

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, produced by 20% Theatre Company in 2016 (with Lindsey Dorcus as Rosalind Franklin): Apart from the occasional Einstein-like solitary genius, most major scientific advances have taken a village, or at least a cadre of researchers. Sorting out who contributed what, and how important it was, is an inexact science and fertile ground for intrepid playwrights. Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 explores why Rosalind Franklin’s crucial contributions to discovering the double helix structure of DNA were ignored by historians for years. The 20% Theatre Company’s production of the play, directed by Elizabeth Lovelady, took place in a church basement with seating for 28 audience members. Despite the modest surroundings, the actors brought the play to vivid life, capturing the personalities and relationships of Franklin and her three male colleagues who won the Nobel Prize for the double helix discovery (James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins). We subsequently saw another fine production of Photograph 51 at Heartland Theatre in Normal, Illinois, in 2017. Interesting note: In association with Ensemble Studio Theatre’s production of Photograph 51 in Manhattan in 2010, Watson was scheduled to take part in a panel discussion about the play, but he was a no-show. Scientific American covered the lively discussion that ensued in his absence.

Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender in Stage Left Theatre's The Body of an American
Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender in Stage Left Theatre’s The Body of an American (photo by Ian McLaren)

Body of an American by Dan O’Brien, produced by Stage Left Theatre in 2016 (with Don Bender and Ryan Hallahan as Paul Watson and Dan O’Brien): We’re old enough to remember the searing photographs that appeared in newspapers and magazines during the Vietnam War, which were published without review by political officials (unlike WWII or Korean War photographs). It was difficult to look at the photographs and not wonder about the photojournalists who took them—how could they retain their sanity when their job was to document such carnage, both military and civilian? The Body of an American provides innumerable insights into that question, not in the Vietnam era, but through the story of photojournalist Paul Watson and his shocking 1993 photo of an American soldier’s body being drug through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia (causing public outrage and arguably hastening American withdrawal from Somalia). The play’s narrative unfolds through intricately interwoven, rapid-fire dialog delivered by the two actors, capturing the intensity and danger of Watson’s experiences. In this production, directed by Jason A. Fleece, Bender and Hallahan gave bravura performances, augmented by provocative photographic projections, an inventive scenic design, and intimate staging, powerfully conveying the high stakes and immense impact for both the photojournalist and the world audience.

Interesting note: At the end of a thought-provoking New York Times article about Paul Watson’s continued involvement with stagings of The Body of an American, Watson eloquently summarized the impact of theatre, even beyond that of journalism: “I’ve never seen what I see in the eyes of people who have seen Dan’s work in the eyes of people who’ve read what I’ve wrote. That’s why we have poets and playwrights.”

Philip Earl Johnson in American Blues Theater's The Columnist
Philip Earl Johnson in American Blues Theater’s The Columnist (photo by Johnny Knight)

The Columnist by David Auburn, produced by American Blues Theater in 2017 (with Philip Earl Johnson as Joseph Alsop): Of all the shows in our list of biographical plays, The Columnist feels most personal to us. We lived through—and our lives were deeply affected by—the Vietnam War and the other historical events that form the backdrop to Joseph Alsop’s story. Under Keira Fromm’s direction, Johnson and the rest of the cast (Coburn Goss, Kymberly Mellen, Christopher Sheard, Tyler Meredith, and Ian Paul Custer) fearlessly explored Alsop’s ego, arrogance, vulnerabilities, patriotism, and complex relationships. The portrait of this profoundly powerful columnist from the 1950s and ’60s, who now is largely forgotten, is a reminder of how much the world has changed in a half century, and how much decisions made 50 years ago still affect the course of events today.

1891 photo of women working at Harvard College Observatory
1891 photo of women working at Harvard College Observatory (photo from the Harvard University Archives)
Scene from First Folio Theatre’s Silent Sky
Scene from First Folio Theatre’s Silent Sky (photo by David Rice)

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, produced by First Folio Theatre in 2017 (with Cassandra Bissell as Henrietta Leavitt): Playwright Lauren Gunderson was intrigued by the story of Henrietta Leavitt, not only because she made breakthrough discoveries in astronomy in the 1890s, but also because she was part of an all-woman group at Harvard College Observatory doing innovative work in astronomy at a time when women weren’t even allowed access to the telescope (or able to vote, for that matter). Under Melanie Keller’s inspired direction, the First Folio production brought the trials, triumphs, and fascinating personalities of these women to life, led by Cassandra Bissell (who was born to play Henrietta Leavitt). Interesting note: Check out what President Barack Obama had to say about Leavitt.


The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin, produced by TimeLine Theatre in 2010 (with Rob Fagin as Philo T. Farnsworth and PJ Powers as David Sarnoff); Interesting note: Brigham Young University High School has an extensive online biography of Farnsworth (“the most influential graduate in the history of Brigham Young High School”), edited by his son Kent, that includes family anecdotes, rare photos, and details about the inspiration and fate of his inventions.

QED by Peter Parnell, produced by ETOPIA at Northwestern University in 2010 (with Rob Riley as Richard Feynman)

Jackie and Me by Dan Gutman, produced by Chicago Childrens Theatre in 2011 (with Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson)

Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting by Ed Schmidt, produced by Lookingglass Theatre in 2012 (with Larry Neumann Jr. as Branch Rickey, Javon Johnson as Jackie Robinson, Anthony Flemming III as Joe Louis, James Vincent Meredith as Paul Robeson, and Ernest Perry Jr. as Bill Robinson)

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Heinar Kipphardt, produced by Saint Sebastian Players in 2014 (with Gary F. Barth as J. Robert Oppenheimer)

Loving Repeating by Flaherty and Stein, produced by Kokandy Productions in 2015 (with Caron Buinis as Gertrude Stein)


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