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Theater 2014-15: Writers maps reduced season as company focuses on drama of new digs

Submitted by on Aug 18, 2014 – 11:16 pm

Jürgen Hooper and Marc Grapey do the math in 'Isaac's Eye' at Writers Theatre.  (Saverio Truglia)Sixth in a series of season previews: With its long-awaited home in Glencoe likely to be ready in early 2016, Writers plans three plays in small spaces for 2014-15; Lucas Hnath’s “Isaac’s Eye” opens Sept. 2.

By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz

“We have a challenging year coming up,” says Writers Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam. Yes, and an exciting one — on an electric scale.

Writers, in case anyone has missed this, is building a $31 million new home on the site of the company’s former main stage in Glencoe. So the 2014-15 season will be miniaturized , with the main drama focused on the grand house that’s projected to have its grand opening in winter 2016.

The new Writers Theatre (architectural rendering, Studio Gang Architects)Rather than simply closing down for a season, Writers will present three plays in intimate spaces. The little 50-seat venue at Books on Vernon, where Writers came into the world 22 years ago, will see Lucas Hnath’s “Isaac’s Eye,” about the brilliant young Isaac Newton’s collision with the great British scientist Robert Hooke, and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman from the original by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

Books on Vernon, where Writers Theatre got its start, hosts productions in its tiny theater space at the back of the store.The transitional season winds up with John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” a cat-and-mouse thriller in which a young priest’s relationship with a boy is questioned by the school’s principal, a nun. It will be staged in the library of Glencoe Union Church.

“We didn’t want to just go dark for the season,” says Halberstam. “That didn’t feel right – like a restaurant deciding not to serve food for a year. This is what we do. But we also didn’t want to try to create a large interim venue – in a space downtown, for example. We’ve had a number of people from other theaters around the country tell us this is one of the great mistakes theater companies make — basically trying to build two new theaters at the same time. We need to keep our eye on the big project.”

The 2014-15 season in brief:

  • Lucas Hnath, author of 'Isaac's Eye.'“Isaac’s Eye” by Lucas Hnath (Midwest premiere, Sept. 2-Dec. 7, at Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe): American playwright Hnath spins the story of a young Isaac Newton, who once inserted a long needle “between my eye and the bone, as near to the backside of my eye as I could.” Hnath reimagines Newton’s world with a contemporary conceit and language—stripped of accents and period dialect—as he introduces young Newton to the great Robert Hooke, the most famous and powerful scientist in Britain. Wit and tension converge in the resulting battle of intellects and egos as the playwright uncovers (and invents) the motivations that drove a young farm boy to become one of the greatest thinkers in human history. “I’ve always like science plays, and this one is fantastic,” says Halberstam, who will direct. “It’s written in a completely modern American vernacular. The same way ‘Doubt’ is subtitled a parable, so is ‘Isaac’s Eye’ a parable. Hnath brings a very exciting new voice to the stage. He tells a story about ego, ambitions and the extent we’re sometimes willing to compromise the things we believe in to pursue our goals.”
  • Anne Frank“The Diary of Anne Frank,” adapted by Wendy Kesselman from the original by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (Feb. 24-May 31, 2015, at Books on Vernon): Anne Frank’s extraordinary diary has become an essential part of how we remember one of the darkest periods of human history. Filled with its young author’s luminous spirit – her “boundless desire for all that is beautiful and good” – the diary also illuminates the coming of age of a complex, passionate young girl as she falls in love, grows into a woman and struggles to survive with her family amid the chaos of war and religious persecution. Thirteen actors will circulate through the tiny bookstore space. Says Halberstam: When we started at the bookstore, we didn’t shy away from grandiose projects. We never thought about the size of show. We just went ahead doing whatever we wanted to do. This is going to be an intense experience, with the audience sharing a room perhaps the size of the one in which Anne Frank and her family were hidden. It’s going to feel edgy and a little bit dangerous – and epic as well.”
  • Glencoe Union Church, site for the play 'Doubt' by John Patrick Shanley.“Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley (May 5-July12, 2015, at Glencoe Union Church, 263 Park Ave., Glencoe): Set against the backdrop of a 1960s America in the midst of political and social change, a progressive young priest’s conduct comes under question by Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the school principal whose beliefs are deeply rooted in tradition. As the actions and motivations of each are scrutinized and suspicion mounts, the two are drawn into a battle of wills that threatens profound consequences for all involved. “I think people are tried and convicted in the media almost daily,” says Halberstam. “The great virtue of a play like ‘Doubt’ is that it forces gray into the conversation at every step of the way. It’s like watching a table-tennis match, one’s impressions swing so constantly. So often, people don’t want to see the middle ground, yet the truth is that almost everything in the world is gray.”

Getting there:

Writers Theatre logoWriters’ Theatre was founded in 1992 “to explore productions in which the word on the page and the artists that bring the word to life hold primary importance.” By early 2016, the company expects to open the doors on its new theater center designed by 2011 MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang and Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects. This season, a truncated lineup of plays will be offered at Books on Vernon, Writers’ original home at 664 Vernon Ave., in Glencoe, and at Glencoe Union Church, 263 Park Ave., in Glencoe.

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