This season of Chicago theater may rival any I've seen in years. Powerful work is being presented on stages large and small across the city, from Steppenwolf's production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman to The Side Project's production of Jesse Weaver's Sweet Pretty Love Jam. Given the varied styles, subject matter and scale of this season's many projects, it's a wonderful time to be a theatergoer in Chicago. Most companies appear to be taking risks that will challenge their ensembles and strongly engage their patrons, giving added weight to a recent quote from London's The Guardian that, "Chicago isthe current theatre capital in America."
There are a few shows that I am certain will serve as prime examples of The Guardian's claim. One show in particular that has me more than intrigued is Craig Wright's Lady at Skokie's Northlight Theatre, which is scheduled to run Jan. 24 through Feb. 25. I believe the play is a sure sign that Chicago theater is the country's strongest champion of new work. The Northlight season brochure describes Lady as, "three old friends on a hunting trip reveal long-held political beliefs and inflict fresh wounds." The description gives little insight into the true depth of the play, but reveals a premise both personal and simple.
Given their large mainstage, it's impressive that Northlight commissioned and championed Lady. This sort of dedication shows faith in the writer to create, faith in the cast to give strong performances and faith in the Chicago audience to fill the seats. This sort of faith proves that freedom and encouragement can lead to achievement and that achievement has the ability to lead to greatness.
Wright's previous collaboration with Northlight Theatre was last season's Grace, which was an inspiration for how new work can affect an audience's (and theater's) perception of what's engaging. A work both intricate, violent and thought-provoking, Grace included some of the best performances of the year, as well as some of the most striking stage imagery. Watching Michael Shannon, Steve Key, Chaon Cross and Mike Nussbaum discover, enrich and convey desperate human interaction was both heart-wrenching and mesmerizing. As the play unfolded, I had the feeling that I was watching a moment like no other. It might be stated that theater always provides moments "like no other," that it is theater's task to live in the moment and let time fall away. Live action has the ability to strike deeper than the moving picture because it's happening before our eyes.
It's not always the case that one is happy or feels lucky to be engaged in such a way (sometimes the engagement can just be annoying), but I felt both happy and lucky to be watching Grace. The moments of life that were presented on stage felt resonant, touching and grounded. When this sort of interaction occurs, an audience becomes invested in the moments they're witnessing and as a result become participants in the creation of these moments. The honesty and skill of Wright's script shared with the audience something necessary and vital, and the investment put into the work made me impressed with the risks that surrounded the production. When this sort of risk-taking pays off, the rewards are often beyond initial expectations. If the actors, director and writer hadn't decided to take a chance with Grace, the commissioning of Wright for the new play Lady may not have taken place. Strong choices in the present lead to stronger and more exciting choices in the future, a lesson that seems to have invaded most companies this season. Broad thinking has given way to other buzz-worthy '06-'07 productions, such as Robert Falls' production of King Lear at the Goodman, The Hypocrites production of Maria Irene Fornes' play Mud, American Theater Company's intimate production of Oklahoma! and David Cromer directing William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba for Shattered Globe. It's going to be a season to remember, an opportunity for all of us to sit down, relax and live in the moment.
--Brett Neveu is a playwright and screenwriter living in Chicago. His new plays, Harmless, will be presented by TimeLine Theatre Company in January, and The Meek, by A Red Orchid Theatre Company in May.
Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: November 2006