Good plays lend themselves to a variety of different interpretations, and we enjoy seeing the same script as realized by different directors, designers, and casts. But occasionally, we see a production that seems so perfect that we can’t imagine its being improved on.
(in alphabetical order by play)
Both Your Houses by Maxwell Anderson: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s 2014 production of this 1933 Pulitzer Prize winner had all the elements needed to put it squarely in their wheelhouse: a sharp-witted drama with wry humor based on personal and political foibles, an ensemble of savvy Remy Bumppo veterans and like-minded guest artists, and astute direction by James Bohnen. Remy Bumppo also has a knack for dramas set in the 1920s and 1930s, capturing the period in the look of the actors, costumes, and scenic design (examples include their Holiday produced in 2002, Aren’t We All in 2005, and The Philadelphia Story in 2007). The bottom line: It’s hard for us to imagine anyone surpassing Remy Bumppo’s Both Your Houses.
Bus Stop by William Inge: Although we’ve seen several very fine productions of this play, the one that best captured the ambiance of a midwestern diner and the emotional neediness of all the characters was the 2011 production by the Den Theatre, directed by Ryan Martin and Lia Mortensen.
Byhalia, Mississippi by Evan Linder: In late 2015, when preparing for the upcoming co-production by The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company, playwright/actor Evan Linder, director Tyrone Phillips, and Memphis journalist Wendi Thomas took a day trip to Byhalia, Mississippi. Evan’s and Tyrone’s moving accounts of the trip chronicle a racial divide that lies just beneath the surface of this arresting play. Linder found a way to grapple with fundamental human and societal issues through intensely personal stories, with potent doses of realism and humor. Thanks to brilliant direction of a perfect cast, ingenious staging, and John Wilson’s remarkable set that recreated a fully realized house in the intimate confines of the Den Theatre, this production of this important play was absolutely definitive.
Charm by Philip Dawkins: Around 2012, Northlight Theatre Artistic Director BJ Jones read a newspaper article about Gloria Allen‘s work at the Center on Halsted, and contacted playwright Philip Dawkins to suggest that her story might make an interesting play. Our first experience with Charm was a reading produced by Northlight Theatre (fittingly at the Center on Halsted) in early 2015. Jones assembled an exceptional cast, with Andre DeShields playing Mama. Our reaction at the end of the reading was that we absolutely loved the play, but how could anyone produce it without Andre DeShields in the lead role? Just a few months later, our question was answered, when we saw Northlight’s full production, again under the direction of Jones, with Dexter Zollicoffer playing Mama. He totally inhabited the role and led an ideal ensemble cast in fully capturing this remarkable story. Interesting note: We were subsequently introduced to Gloria Allen at another Philip Dawkins play. As soon as she entered the room, we instinctively guessed who she was because of her striking grace and presence. It was an honor to meet her.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams: We had seen two laudable student productions and eight excellent professional productions of this play prior to 2013, when we saw director Hans Fleischmann’s version for the first time at Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company. It was called a “re-imagining,” but it seemed more like a “take the playwright’s words to heart” version. In particular, this “memory play” is usually staged as a re-enactment of events, typically on a realistic set depicting the Wingfield’s dingy St. Louis home. But Fleischmann made it a true “memory play,” told by Tom Wingfield living as a vagrant years after the fact. The idea came to him while he was living out of his van in Los Angeles, when his sleep was disturbed by the tirade of a homeless man outside. As we viewed the show at Mary-Arrchie, set in an alley littered with several thousand empty bottles and other discarded glass, so many things in the text clicked into place for the first time. At intermission, we spoke with a friend in the audience who had played Laura in an acclaimed production of the play the previous year, and her first comment was, “now I think I understand this play.” In 2016, we saw Fleischmann’s further re-imagining of the play (with him directing and playing Tom, as in the Mary-Arrchie production) at the Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, and it only deepened our appreciation for the veracity of his vision and the consummate skill of Fleischmann and the cast in bringing it to life. This production was definitive in vision, conception, and execution—a revelation! Interesting note: The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago in 1944 (a rocky run, but the play was lauded by key critics), and then moved to Broadway, where it won the 1945 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play.
The History Boys by Alan Bennett: In the illustrious history of Chicago theatre, the accolades for the production of The History Boys at TimeLine Theatre in 2009 stand out. The highly anticipated Chicago premiere of the London and Broadway hit was extended multiple times and ran for 25 weeks and 140 performances (only 45 short of the Broadway run). The show was nominated for Jeff Awards in five categories—Best Production, Director (Nick Bowling), Ensemble, Actor in a Supporting Role (Alex Weisman), and Scenic Design (Brian Sidney Bembridge)—and won all five awards. Several members of the cast were still in school themselves, and many in the cast went on to become mainstays of Chicago theatre and beyond. More than one reviewer stated that the TimeLine production was even better than the premiere production at the National Theatre in London (which won Olivier Awards for Best New Play, Best Director, and Best Actor), and its subsequent remounting on Broadway (where it won six Tony Awards). In Theatre in Chicago’s Review Roundup, all 15 reviews of the TimeLine production registered as “highly recommended.” We included this remarkable show in our list of definitive productions because of the superlative cast, the ensemble work, and an unsurpassed sense of being in the time and place of the characters in the play.
An Iliad by O’Hare and Peterson: We’ve seen this epic one-actor play four times: twice with Timothy Edward Kane at Court Theatre, directed by Charles Newell in 2011 and 2013, and twice with Jim DeVita (and cellist Alicia Storin playing a score composed by Joshua Schmidt), directed by John Langs at Milwaukee Rep in 2014 and at American Players Theatre in 2015. At Court Theatre, the set and conception were the same for both
productions, with Kane delivering a powerful performance in 2011 (that we thought could never be topped) and somehow palpably deepening it two years later. In contrast, DeVita and director Langs radically changed the concept and presentation of the play for their second production, resulting in a stunning rendition. Most notably, in the 2014 version DeVita appeared as a weary war veteran; in 2015, he was a professor with a history lesson to impart to his students (the audience). Though the two actors and their directors envisioned An Iliad in strikingly different ways, each was phenomenally moving and effective. Both were unforgettable experiences, and it was impossible to leave the theatre unchanged. So our list of definitive productions of An Iliad includes both the 2013 Court Theatre production and the 2015 American Players Theatre take. Author’s note: One indication of the lingering emotional impact of both productions is that just writing this description of the two performances brought tears to my eyes. Sadly, the list of wars recited by the actor grows longer with each production.
Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw: We’ve seen six worthy productions of this classic Shaw play, but every aspect of the 2002 Writers Theatre production, directed by William Brown, was flawless. The cast included a who’s who of first-rate Chicago actors, some veterans and others just getting established, but all fantastic. Thinking about Michael Halberstam‘s turn as Julius Baker (“Gunner”) makes us a bit sad that the demands of being a frequent director and serving as Artistic Director of Writers Theatre leave little time for him to exercise his considerable acting chops. And Guy Adkins as Bentley Summerhays was simply unforgettable; in this, as in all his other roles, he set an unattainable standard that any mortal actor can only aspire to. Similarly, Writers Theatre’s Misalliance is the best production of this tricky Shaw piece that we can imagine.
Music Hall by Jean-Luc Lagarce, translated by Joseph Long: This poetic, charming, humorous, and poignant play was produced by TUTA Theatre Chicago in 2015, playing first at The Den Theatre and then moving to 59E59 in New York. The play tells the story of a once renowned Josephine Baker-esque “artiste,” clinging to a fading elegance and waning dignity while on tour in the decidedly downhill phase of her career. The narrative is told with grace and gentle humor by the two supporting performers in the artiste’s act. In director Zeljko Djukic’s brilliant staging, a simple set with a mirrored wall, a sliding curtain, a ladder, and a stool represented backstage and on-stage settings for the succession of one-night stands farther and farther from the the artiste’s ideal. The music, movement, inventive use of props and set, and the unfailing subtlety and sensitivity of the director and actors made this production unbeatable in our eyes.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry: The first time we saw this play was a DePaul University student production in 2010, in the same theatre where it premiered in 1959 for a four-week run before moving to New York. (A Raisin in the Sun is part of the fascinating history of the venue now known as the Merle Reskin Theatre.) The student cast was superb, and featured several actors who have gone on to noteworthy professional careers in Chicago, such as McKenzie Chinn (as Ruth Younger) and Sean Parris (as Joseph Asagai). Three years later, in 2013 at TimeLine Theatre, we saw our selection for definitive production. It featured intense acting, flawless direction by Ron OJ Parson, and authenticity in every detail (scenic design, sound design, costumes, props, and even the smell of frying bacon). Another hallmark was its intimacy. From the front row, our toes touched the rug in the Youngers’ living room. Audience members were not merely “flies on the wall,” but engaged guests, sharing the space and the experience with the actors.
A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller: American Players Theatre’s 2017 production of this classic, directed by Tim Ocel, was possibly the most perfect rendering we’d ever seen of any play. Without a false step from beginning to end, the actors painted unstinting images of three-dimensional characters, and created an accelerating and palpable sense of foreboding. The spare but evocative set (designed by Takeshi Kata, with lighting by Jesse Klug) conveyed the full environment of the play, giving you a sense of the working-class home and a “community entrenched in honor and iron wills,” and even the docks where Eddie made a living for his family. This play has been called “a Greek tragedy set in 1950s Brooklyn” and “a kitchen-sink drama with knives,” and APT’s production captured it all. At the end of the performance, the audience members all leapt to their feet, clearly overwhelmed and eager to express their appreciation for what they’d just experienced.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee: In the same spirit that the Equity Jeff Awards include both a large and a mid-size winner for best production, we have a large-venue and a small-venue definitive production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Not surprisingly, our large-venue choice is the 2010 Steppenwolf production, directed by Pam MacKinnon, with a cast of Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, and Madison Dirks. All the actors brought new insights to their characters, epitomized by Letts’ revelatory take on George. Charles Isherwood noted in his review of the show at Steppenwolf, “This is the only time I’ve seen the play when I felt a protective impulse toward Martha.” The production garnered Jeff Award nominations for best play, director, lead actor, and scenic design (Todd Rosenthal), but despite overwhelmingly positive critical and audience response, received no award in any category. (The Jeffs went to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s The Madness of George III, its director Penny Metropulos and star Harry Groener, and to scenic designer David Korins for Goodman Theatre’s Chinglish.) Two years later, with cast and crew intact, the Steppenwolf production opened on Broadway on October 13, 2012, 50 years to the day after the play’s original Broadway premiere. Tony Awards followed for best revival, director, and lead actor, plus nominations for lead actress Amy Morton and featured actress Carrie Coon. On the subject of awards, the New York Times ran a fascinating article on the chemistry, reviews, and awards for four notable George and Martha duos in Broadway Virginia Woolf productions, entitled When George and Martha Met Tony.
Our “small-venue” definitive production of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf was staged by Redtwist Theatre in 2015, directed by Jason Gerace, with Brian Parry and Jacqueline Grandt as George and Martha, and Stephan Cefalu, Jr. and Elizabeth Argus as Nick and Honey. The entire Redtwist theatre was turned into George and Martha’s living room, with the audience sitting around the perimeter. This was easily the most intense performance of Virginia Woolf that we had ever seen, heightened by consistently excellent and visceral acting from the entire cast. In our experience, other productions of this play had tended to focus on one of the lead characters more than the other (usually Martha, but George at Steppenwolf); Redtwist’s was the most balanced version we’d seen, with both leads fully under the microscope, in a perfectly orchestrated collaboration of actors and director.
Another small-venue Virginia Woolf, by Pulse Theatre, made our list of memorable surprises.
Wonderful Town by Bernstein, Comden, and Green: We’ve seen many musicals that were beautifully performed, sung, danced, directed, and designed; but the only musical where we thought every single element was as perfect as humanly possible was the 2016 Goodman Theatre production of Wonderful Town. During the almost-three-hour show, the cast and musicians captivated the multi-generational, full-house audience. Director Mary Zimmerman’s quirky and collaborative approach was evident throughout and flawlessly executed by the 26-member cast (16 of whom were making their Goodman debuts), led by the phenomenal Bri Sudia and Lauren Molina in the roles originated by Rosalind Russell and Edie Adams. To create the many NYC locales in the show, miniature cars, trains, and airplanes (plus a whimsical ship) augmented stylized skyscrapers and other modular set pieces that were endlessly reconfigurable, with nary a nanosecond lost to set changes (thanks to Todd Rosenthal’s ingenious scenic design and the choreographed set-piece movements by the actors). Interesting note: Among the many great articles linked from the press section of the Goodman’s Wonderful Town web pages, Kelly Wallace’s Stage & Candor interview with Bri Sudia and Lauren Molina is a must-read, with fascinating insights on their relationship, Chicago theatre, and Wonderful Town.