Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT, now in its Chicago premiere at Goodman Theatre under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, focuses on a group of blue-collar factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Bound together by the toils of working-class life in the town’s steel-tubing factory, these friends and family members gather at a local bar to let off steam and celebrate special occasions. And though the work at the factory may not be fulfilling, Nottage makes clear this work is vital for the characters’ livelihoods. For many of them, a life of working at the factory dates back generations. As the play toggles between 2000 and 2008, Nottage also reflects how her characters’ lives intersect with current events and questions of race, class, and success in America.
In HANDS ON A HARDBODY, now making its Chicago premiere with Refuge Theatre Project, the mobility offered by that titular hardbody truck is not just of the wheeled variety. Instead, the contest among 10 working class Texans to be the last to have their hands on that Nissan truck also becomes a rather obvious symbol of the American Dream. While book writer Doug Wright, lyricist Amanda Green, and composers Green and Trey Anastasio are not subtle in their treatment of that metaphor, HANDS ON A HARDBODY is a thoughtful meditation on how elusive that dream can be.
The national tour of A BRONX TALE, now playing Broadway In Chicago’s newly renamed James M. Nederlander Theatre, tries to fit in many themes in its swift run time of just two hours. Based on the play by Chazz Palminteri, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, the musical introduces us to Calogero, a young man living, of course, in the Bronx. At the age of nine, young Calogero (Frankie Leoni) does a favor for Sonny (Joe Barbara), a mob man of sorts living in the neighborhood. As thanks in kind, Sonny takes Calogero under his wing and tries to teach him the ways of the world. But Calogero’s mother, Rosina (Michelle Aravena) and father, Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake, reprising the role from the Broadway run), espouse an entirely different life philosophy based on hard work. Lorenzo, in particular, tells his son he despises nothing more than wasted talent. As Calogero (Joey Barreiro) reaches high school, he must decide how to develop his own moral compass.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…, currently onstage as the second production in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ season, opens up challenging questions about history, who has the right to tell what story, and how best we can represent critical moments from the past without complete information. In the play, Drury lays bare the white washing of much of history and how the identities that we bring into the room shape our understanding of the past. Under the direction of Hallie Gordon and Gabrielle Randle, the six actors of the ensemble dive into the complexities of this play with full force and with a clear trust and respect for one another. WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…offers up issues that are not only provoking and challenging for students, but for any audience member.
AN INSPECTOR CALLS is a gripping theatrical experience from start-to-finish. Director Stephen Daldry’s breathtaking revival of J.B. Priestley’s 1946 thriller had its origins in 1992 and comes to Chicago Shakespeare Theater now as part of an international tour from the National Theatre of Great Britain. Though Daldry originally conceived of this staging decades ago and Priestly has set his play in 1912, this production possesses both a timeliness and a timelessness that make it deeply impactful now. AN INSPECTOR CALLS is a legitimate thriller that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats with its sustained suspense, but the play is also a resonant commentary on humankind’s obligations to one another—and the dire consequences that result from those who forget that basic tenant of kindness. The beauty of Daldry’s production is that neither the mystery nor the messaging feel overwrought; every moment of AN INSPECTOR CALLS maintains integrity and interest.
Rebecca Gilman’s world premiere TWILIGHT BOWL, now playing in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, introduces us to six women contemplating the challenges of young adulthood in vastly different ways. Five of these young women are residents of the small town of Reynolds, Wisconsin. The titular Twilight Bowl refers to a neighborhood bar and bowling establishment, designed with realistic, painstaking detail by Regina Garcia, where the five Wisconsin women gather. Many of them have also worked at the Twilight Bowl, whether to pass the time in the summer or as a way to make a living. Though the lives of these young women may initially seem quaint to some, the introduction of an outsider from Winnetka, Illinois in the play’s second scene indicates that we all in some ways occupy our own “bubbles.”
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.