2018 was another glorious year for Chicago theater. Here are some of my top picks from the past year, in order of opening date. I enjoyed this opportunity to look back on all the remarkable storytelling I’ve seen onstage this year, and I’m looking forward to the official Year of Chicago Theatre in 2019 (though honestly that’s every year for me)!
THE WOLVES — Goodman Theatre
THE WOLVES gave not just visibility, but achingly real and moving representation to characters rarely seen onstage. Playwright Sarah DeLappe keenly articulated the uncertainty of female adolescence in her script, and the Goodman’s ensemble elevated that material for maximum emotional effect and resonance. DeLappe beautifully, movingly, and realistically captured the tenuousness that comes with being a teenage girl navigating the thorny terrain of high school. DeLappe has captured so precisely the agony and nuances of high school female friendship. In this 90-minute play about an indoor high school girls’ soccer team, DeLappe presents the achingly real challenges of life as a teenage girl in suburban America. I felt a deeply personal connection to THE WOLVES, and I think that DeLappe’s incredible use of language in this play made her characters so utterly real without compromising on the material’s ability to dive into deep themes about female friendship and identity exploration during the challenging and awkward days of high school. This was without a doubt one of the most phenomenal theater experiences I had in 2018.
LETTIE — Victory Gardens Theater
From my review: Boo Killebrew’s world premiere play LETTIE is profoundly heartbreaking and brilliantly conceived. Under the direction of Artistic Director Chay Yew, the production devastatingly unfolds the narrative of the titular working class ex-convict Lettie. Both Killebrew’s masterful, raw writing and Yew’s superlative ensemble—with Caroline Neff in the title role and doing some of the best work so far of her career—bring immense pathos and a swirl of shifting emotions upon the audience.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR — Lyric Opera
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR was a brilliant and invigorating theatrical experience from beginning to end. As a theater lover, it is one my greatest joys to discover productions where all the pieces of the puzzle fit together so precisely—and that’s exactly what happened here. This production wholly earns the superstar status bestowed by its title.
GUARDS AT THE TAJ — Steppenwolf
This was without question one of the most profoundly moving works of theater I saw this year. Though GUARDS AT THE TAJ may have just two characters, Rajiv Joseph’s script, Amy Morton’s direction, and Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed’s performances all combined to make this a production with real gravitas. Certainly, the play’s exploration of the sacrifices we make for art and the question of who has the right to become an authority on art are also compelling. GUARDS AT THE TAJ cut deep, with a profound mix of intensity and tragedy mixed with so much beauty and a beautiful portrayal of the friendship between Humayun (Metwally) and Babur (Moayed).
GYPSY — Porchlight Music Theatre
E. Faye Butler commands the Porchlight stage with a presence that’s both larger-than-life and at the same time a deeply revealing character study. To say that Butler’s portrayal of Mama Rose is a star turn is almost not enough. Butler seems to live and breathe this role; she does not appear to be acting but rather fully inhabiting this iconic character. Look out, Chicago. It’s Butler’s turn. And she is making the most of it.
Honorable Mention: TOOTSIE Pre-Broadway Tryout
Though it was not a locally grown production, I must also give a shout-out to TOOTSIE—one of the most enjoyable musicals I saw this year. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Santino Fontana. He did not disappoint in the lead role as desperate actor Michael Dorsey, who decides to revive his floundering Broadway career by disguising himself as Dorothy Michaels. It was also one of the most impeccably cast musical productions I’ve ever seen; each of the actors fit their roles like a glove. TOOTSIE delivered two-and-a-half hours of non-stop laughs. But TOOTSIE succeeded because the laughs weren’t cheap; rather the material is strong and well-structured and will surely become even stronger when it makes its way to Broadway in the spring.