Theater 2014-15: Two world premieres, dear jewel keep Northlight true to its 40-year form
Eighth in a series of season previews: Musical treatment of historical 1920s radium-illness tragedy joins a new play by “Outgoing Tide” author Bruce Graham; season opens Sept. 19 with spin on Madoff story.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
Northlight Theatre enters its 40th anniversary season with a group of plays that exactly fits the model this company has refined through four decades of success. It’s what veteran artistic director BJ Jones describes as “a blend of new work and refreshed classics.”
At season’s end comes the world premiere of “Shining Lives: A Musical,” with lyrics by Jessica Thebus and music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert. It’s based on Melanie Marnich’s play “These Shining Lives,” about women in the 1920s who painted radium faces on clocks only to become fatally ill from exposure to the paint.
“We commissioned the play years ago, but decided not to do it,” says Jones. “Other theaters did stage it, but I always thought it needed music. Now we’ve decided to reclaim it as a musical, and it’s quite impressive.”
Opening the series is “Outside Mullingar,” a sort of rural Irish, comic, upside down “Romeo and Juliet” by John Patrick Shanley, best known for his screenplay “Moonstruck” and the drama “Doubt.”
“This is Shanley’s newest play and it’s filled with his typical whimsy and wit, and with the essentials of the Irish character – romance, wit and language,” says Jones. “It’s a funny, backward love story, a quirky comedy and a dark romance – the Irish ‘Moonstruck.’”
A second world premiere brings Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on the Bus,” about a white businessman who gets a stunning test of his personal views on race. Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide” and “Stella & Lou” scored major hits at Northlight in recent seasons.
The “refreshed classic”? Agatha Christie’s ever-springing “Mousetrap,” the famous whodunit that’s still going strong on London’s West End after 62 years.
“Our audience likes stories that are narrative based and rich in character,” says Jones. “That doesn’t mean the narrative has to be linear, but it must be compelling, a story they can identify with. That’s what we have tried to offer for 40 years now, and that’s the concept that inspired this season.”
The 2014-15 season in brief:
- “The Commons of Pensacola” by Amanda Peet (Midwest premiere, Sept. 19-Oct. 19): Judith is a woman in exile, relegated to a Florida condo after her husband’s Madoff-like crimes have expelled her from a luxurious life. Family ties are tested when her daughter Becca comes to visit for Thanksgiving, joined by Becca’s filmmaker boyfriend and rebellious niece. Guilt by association, lost wealth and questionable motives make trying to love your family an uncommonly difficult challenge in this darkly funny, incisive and timely new drama. “While this play was inspired by the Madoff scandal, it’s not about that,” says Jones. “It’s about the collateral damage and potential complicity done to and with the wife and childen of an outsized national criminal. The play’s relevance is obvious enough. This country has just been through a tremendous socio-economic upheaval. But the play itself – the first by Amanda Peet – is taut and exciting, a really well-made debut work.”
- “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie (Nov. 14-Dec. 14): On a snowy night at Monkswell Manor, newlyweds Mollie and Giles welcome a group of strangers to their guest house, only to discover news of a murderer in their midst. A police investigation reveals the sordid details of each guest’s mysterious past, but not soon enough to stop the killer from striking again. This celebrated thriller weaves an intricate plot filled with nerve-rattling suspense, leading up to the ultimate twist. “This is exactly the kind of play our audience loves – provocative both emotionally and intellectually,” says Jones. “The funny thing is, when I brought it up at a meeting to discuss play selection, none of us – myself included – had seen it or read it.”
- “White Guy on the Bus” by Bruce Graham (World premiere, Jan. 30-March 1, 2015): Ray, a successful white business executive, rides the bus past the state penitentiary every Saturday. On his weekly ride he befriends Shatique, a young black woman putting herself through school and struggling to raise a son on her own. The threads that tie these disparate individuals together gradually unravel in a complex and explosive examination of race, intent, and racial biases from a candid and unexpected perspective. Says Jones: “This very powerful play deals with race, liberal hypocrisy and racial anger that is not so subtly building until it’s ready to overflow its banks.”
- “Outside Mullingar” by John Patrick Shanley (March 20-April 19, 2015): Anthony and Rosemary are two introverted misfits. Anthony has spent his entire life on a cattle farm in rural Ireland, oblivious to the longing of his neighbor Rosemary, who hopelessly pines for him as the years slip away. With Anthony’s father threatening to disinherit him and a land feud simmering between their families, Rosemary fears romantic catastrophe. These two eccentric souls scramble their way towards happiness in a compassionate, wryly funny tale of how surprising love can be.
- “Shining Lives: A Musical,” book and lyrics by Jessica Thebus with music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert, based on the play “The Shining Lives” by Melanie Marnich (World premiere, May 15-June 14): It’s 1922 and the young women of Chicago’s Radium Dial Company are living a dream— earning good wages and beaming with new-found independence. After years of hand painting watch dials, the so-called “harmless” radium that provided for so much joy leads to tragic results. Four courageous women upend their lives with a determination to change the future in this compelling new musical, the transcendent tale of heroic lives that once shone with promise. “It’s a very moving story and despite the tragic results, quite hopeful,” says Jones. “All the litigation that went into settling the estates of the women who died led to rules for a safer work environment. In the end, it’s quite uplifting.”
Northlight Theatre, founded in 1974, led a nomadic life until 1997 when the company settled into its present home, the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, a 342-seat theater located at 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie, IL. It’s just east of the Edens Expressway, across from Westfield Old Orchard shopping center.
- Official website of Northlight Theatre: Northlight.org
- Review of Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67” at Northlight Theatre: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Ten Chimneys” at Northlight Theatre: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: Agatha Christie, Amanda Dehnert, Amanda Peet, Andre Pluess, BJ Jones, Bruce Graham, Jessica Thebus, John Patrick Shanley, Melanie Marnich, Northlight Theatre, Outside Mullingar, Shine Lives: A Musical, The Commons of Pensacola, The Mousetrap, White Guy on a Bus