Friday, January 2, 2009
Originally posted: December 20, 2008
The BEST THEATER of 2008 ...
A Chicagoan finally won the Pulitzer Prize in drama. American Girl Place closed its basement theater. The producers of “Jersey Boys” belatedly decided that Chicago wasn’t just another stop on the road. The death of Paul Sills left Chicago improv an orphan. The unpredicted box office success of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” (left) and the Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz” proved once again that many Chicagoans like their theater to have some heft, but no one seemed to care about a sidesplitting but poorly marketed “Forbidden Broadway.” A young Obama took an acting class at the Lookingglass Theatre, and Chicago hired a clutch of new artistic directors with international reputations. A growing recession kicked a lot of theater companies in the teeth.
You might say 2008 was an up-and-down year, and this indefatigable theater city even came up with a December show—Second City’s “America: All Better!”—that perfectly captured the heights and dips of the roller coaster.
But I’ll remember 2008 for its great performances—Lois Smith in “The Trip to Bountiful,” Hollis Resnik in “Grey Gardens,” E. Faye Butler in “Caroline, or Change,” Francis Guinan in “The Seafarer,” (left) Levi Kreis in “Million Dollar Quartet,” Nigel Patterson in “Journey’s End,” Kathryn Hunter in Peter Brook’s “Fragments,” Peter Burns in “Four Places,” Helen Sadler in “A Taste of Honey,” Justin Berkobien in “Buddy,” Raymond Fox in “The Voysey Inheritance,’ Richard Todd Adams in the Marriott Theatre’s “Les Miserables.”
I’ll recall the success of its directors—Jim Corti, David Cromer, Charles Newell, Harris Yulin. I’ll bow to the playwrights who came up with memorable new works here—Marisa Wegrzyn, Lydia R. Diamond, Bill Jepsen, Nottage.
And I will be forever grateful for the chance to spend time at the Goodman Theatre reliving the 92-year-old imagination of Horton Foote, an American genius who was underrated for years and to whom Chicago gave the respect he long has deserved.
And even though I must confess that the very best show I saw all year was in New York—“South Pacific” at the Lincoln Center—I’ll marvel, once again, at the guts of Chicago theater, which stared out at a volatile world and reflected its dreams and its nightmares, right back in our upturned faces.
Top 10 ...
1. “The Trip to Bountiful,” Goodman Theatre (left). Harris Yulin’s exquisitely nuanced direction of this profound Horton Foote play was matched by Lois Smith’s heartbreaking central performance.
2. “Our Town,” the Hypocrites (left). The actor-director David Cromer turned what we thought would be an ordinary little basement production of the high school favorite into a rivetingly revisionist and devastatingly unsentimental indictment of small-town denial. It’s headed to New York in 2009.
3. “Picnic,” Writers’ Theatre Chicago. With the help of a perfectly cast ensemble, Cromer (again) revealed the restless energy and raw fear behind those seemingly idyllic summers of the 1950s.
4. “Caroline, or Change,” Court Theatre. E. Faye Butler gave the performance of a lifetime in Charles Newell’s revelatory new production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s American musical about parenting, dislocation and race.
5. “Ruined,” Goodman Theatre. Thanks to an exuberant production from the director Kate Whoriskey, Lynn Nottage’s new play opened its audience’s eyes to the sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo yet also caught the resilience of the African human spirit. New York awaits in 2009.
6. “Four Places,” Victory Gardens (left). Joel Drake Johnson’s drama about adult children trying to take care of a struggling elderly mother couldn’t have been simpler. And for anyone dealing with elderly parents, it couldn’t have rung more true. Sandy Shinner’s production featured superb Chicago acting.
7. “Sweet Charity,” Drury Lane Oakbrook. The best show Oakbrook has seen in years, this Cy Coleman classic was reimagined with thrilling color, energy and verve by the director Jim Corti and the Fosse-oriented choreographer, Mitzi Hamilton.
8. “Gatz,” Elevator Repair Service at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This brilliantly audacious theatrical treatment of “The Great Gatsby” played as a profound celebration and exploration of America’s complicated relationship with its literary classics. Nearly seven hours merely melted away.
9. “The Seafarer” Steppenwolf Theatre. Led by Francis Guinan in what is probably the best male performance of the year in Chicago, a Steppenwolf ensemble stares into Conor McPherson’s bottles of booze and finds a Devil of its own making.
10. “Journey’s End,” Griffin Theatre. Jonathan Berry’s powerful, richly acted production of the classic English drama of World War I revealed anew the isolation of war and its simultaneous ability to spark the most selfless sacrifices.
Honorable mentions (alphabetically): “America: All Better!” (Second City), “Don’t Dress for Dinner” (British American Stage Company), “Grey Gardens” (Northlight Theatre), “If All The World Were Paper” (Chicago Children’s Theatre), “Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers of the Night" (Theo Ubique), “Les Miserables” (Marriott Theatre), “Million Dollar Quartet” (Deegee Theatricals, John Cossette Productions and Northern Lights), “A Taste of Honey” (Shattered Globe Theatre), “Tomorrow Morning” (Hilary A. Williams LLC), “The Voysey Inheritance” (Remy Bumppo Theatre Company).