Much like its companion piece THE MADRES, Stephanie Alison Walker’s THE ABUELAS starts out as a slow, compelling burn that builds to a torrent of emotions. While THE MADRES took place in 1979 and introduced us to three generations of Argentine women fighting for the survival of the youngest, Belen, who is among “Los Desparecidos” taken by the government—THE ABUELAS transports us right here to Chicago, 37 years later. José Manuel Diaz’s polished and urbane apartment set, implied to be located on Lake Shore Drive, paves the way for a narrative that starts out as an almost mundane portrait of a modern family. But soon secrets are revealed that connect back to the characters of THE MADRES in a heartbreaking and powerful fashion.
Both profoundly moving and profoundly disturbing, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is one of the most deeply troubling musicals I’ve seen. I left DEAR EVAN HANSEN with a swirl of mixed emotions. With book by Steven Levenson and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and direction by Michael Greif, this 2017 Tony Award-winning musical wants desperately to send a message about the possibility of hope amid the isolating times of high school and the swirling of social media feeds, but the show feels weighed down by its morally dark storyline.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2, now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf under the direction of Robin Witt, explores the gap between society’s expectations for the central character Nora and how she perceives herself. Lucas Hnath’s sequel to Ibsen’s classic, proto-feminist work A DOLL’S HOUSE sees Nora returning through the very door she slammed fifteen years prior. She now must literally face the consequences of her desire to reclaim her identity and her quest to achieve equal rights to the men of 19th century society. In so doing, Hnath reveals that the chasm between Nora’s societal/familial obligations and her obligations to herself may never be resolved.
In PIPELINE, playwright Dominique Morisseau reflects on the cracks in the inner-city public-school system, and the ways in which it often functions as a school to prison pipeline for young black men, without vilifying the system’s participants. It’s a skillfully crafted balance that demonstrates how the brokenness of the system is disheartening for teachers and students alike. And under the direction of Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Victory Gardens Theater’s ensemble makes this a very human struggle.
A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, in its local debut now at Porchlight Music Theatre, is a devilish musical theater delight. Porchlight’s staging is all the more delectable with veteran musical theater actor Matt Crowle leading the way—in eight distinct roles.
Christina Anderson’s HOW TO CATCH CREATION, now in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre, uses language that is simultaneously poetic and realistic in its exploration of legacy and artistic expression. The play centers on two generations of characters. We learn that these characters, though living several decades apart, are connected in unexpected ways. And each character longs to establish some kind of legacy, whether it be personal—in the form of children and loved ones—or professional—through works of art that will outlast the creator.
Ike Holter’s RED REX, now in its world premiere at Steep Theatre, is a delightfully meta-theatrical experience. The play is the sixth in local playwright Holter’s ambitious seven-play cycle about Rightlynd, the fictional 51st ward of Chicago. It is one of the most intriguing, brilliant, and solidly constructed plays in the “Rightlynd Saga.” RED REX is Chicago theater that is quite literally about Chicago theater. Yet Holter never panders to his theater-loving audience in his writing. Watching RED REX is a simultaneously gratifying and challenging experience, and that’s precisely what makes this play so powerful.
Despite the title, Will Eno’s THE REALISTIC JONESES, now receiving its Chicago premiere in a co-production between Shattered Globe Theatre and Theater Wit, does not seem to wholly exist in the real world. Though Jack Magaw’s tidy set design, Hailey Rakowiecki’s quotidian costume designs, and John Kelly’s lighting design are all quite realistic, Eno’s play dwells in the realm of the absurd. Rather than following any conventional narrative structure, THE REALISTIC JONESES plays out as a series of vignettes between two married couples; both are the Joneses of the title. The elder Joneses, Jennifer and Bob, are long-time residents of the unidentified town near the mountains, while Pony and John are newcomers to the neighborhood.
In DADA WOOF PAPA HOT, now in its Chicago premiere at About Face Theatre, playwright Peter Parnell explores that nagging question of what it means to have it all. The play centers on a gay couple and their circle of friends. Though Alan (Bruch Reed) and Rob (Benjamin Sprunger) have been together for fifteen years, they’ve been married for a much shorter period of time and must navigate their shifting identities as partners and as parents of their three-year-old daughter, Nicola. (The play’s seemingly nonsensical title refers to her first words and attempt at her parents’ names.) The characters in DADA WOOF PAPA HOT are clearly well-off, but that doesn’t make the ways in which they struggle with the challenges of daily life and parenthood any less human.
Hansol Jung’s CARDBOARD PIANO, now in its Chicago premiere at Timeline Theatre Company, centers on historical and contemporary issues in Uganda. Jung’s narrative sweeps up much of that nation’s recent history of violence, child soldiers, and homophobia into the story of just a few characters inside a church. And CARDBOARD PIANO relays all this alongside lofty themes of forgiveness, the power of religion, and the human need to fix what’s broken and right wrongs. While this may sound like a tall order for one play to tackle—and it is—it is Jung’s utterly human, multidimensional characters that allow her to find success. Jung also proves a masterful playwright because she knows that the best plays meditate on themes and add more complexity to some of life’s biggest questions, without offering up clear answers.