Theater 2014-15: Five premieres shape season as Victory Gardens observes 40th year
Ninth in a series of season previews: Midwest premieres of ensemble member Samuel D. Hunter’s “Rest” and Colm Tóibín’s “The Testament of Mary” lead off, with a pair of world premieres to follow.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
Two world premieres anchor the 40th-anniversary season at Victory Gardens Theater, which opens with the Midwest premiere of “Rest,” company ensemble member Samuel D. Hunter’s story of senior citizens and their youthful attendants at a retirement home trapped by a dire emergency in a blizzard and forced to confront the chasm between their generations.
A second Midwest premiere follows with Colm Tóibín’s one-woman show “The Testament of Mary,” a re-imagined narrative by Mary on the last days of her son Jesus. The play had a critically acclaimed, albeit brief and controversial, run on Broadway in 2013 with Fiona Shaw as the elderly Mary.
The two world premieres follow. Lauren Yee’s “Samsara” is a wry comedy about an American couple having a baby with a surrogate mother in India. “A Wonder in My Soul” by Victory Gardens ensemble playwright Marcus Gardley and set in 1960s Chicago, deals with a bickering R&B group that reunites for a 35th-anniversary benefit performance.
The season winds up with “The Who & The What” by Ayad Akhtar, author of the widely produced play “Disgraced.” When the daughter of American Muslims in Atlanta writes a book about women and Islam, the family seams begin to tear. Chicago director Kimberly Senior, who directed both “Disgraced” and “The Who & The What” in New York, will shepherd the Victory Gardens production.
“I just fell in love with these plays,” says Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, explaining how he assembled the new season. “Taken together, they seem to hold up a mirror to 21st-century Chicago. This company is basically about new American work, which lies at the core of our mission. But I also found each of these plays interesting in its own right. The season simply found its own shape.”
The season in brief:
- “Rest” by Samuel D. Hunter (Midwest premiere, Sept. 19-Oct. 12): A retirement home in northern Idaho is being shut down, and only three residents and a bare-bones young staff remain. When a record breaking blizzard blows into town and an elderly resident disappears into the storm, everyone is brought to face their own mortality. “I feel deeply about our aging population in this country,” says Yew. “What happens when you lose your memory? Can millennials communicate across the gap to the baby boomers? What is the emotional family? “‘Rest’ is set in a snowbound retirement home that is about to be abandoned, and it wrestles with issues of aging, dementia and a new generation taking care of the older one. But the young people are emotionally and philosophically lost, as well – and now these generations are forced to speak to each other.”
- “The Testament of Mary” by Colm Tóibín (Midwest premiere, Nov. 21-Dec. 14): In her old age, Mary rejects the idea that Jesus was the son of God and refuses to cooperate with the writers of the gospels, though they regularly visit her and provide her with food and shelter. Her narrative recounts the last days of her son from her own perspective. “This play is a woman’s view of the Jesus story,” says Yew. “It beautifully articulates a mother’s love, but it’s also about the emotional conflict that emerges when Mary becomes both a political pawn and a cult-religious figure. The Bible was written by men and it centers on male figures. How do women today see this story? Religion keeps evolving, and this play offers a 21st-century view of historical roles and tradition.” Dennis Začek, Victory Gardens’ founding artistic director, returns to direct the play.
- “Samsara” by Lauren Yee (World premiere, Feb. 13-March 8, 2015): Americans Katie and Craig are having a baby with Suraiya, a surrogate from India. As all three “parents” anxiously await the baby’s due date, Katie and Suraiya are attacked by flights of their imagination: a seductive Frenchman and a sharp-tongued fetus. Originally developed at Victory Gardens’ Ignition New Play Festival in 2012, the play offers a comedic journey into 21st-century parenthood and modern-day colonialism. “This light and whimsical comedy is ultimately about the new American family, where you need to figure out how to get a baby,” says Yew. “It’s also about economic reality and globalism. A surrogate mother in India is cheaper, but only the husband is able to travel to India to deal with the young mother because his wife is afraid of flying. And both the husband and wife get caught up in separate fantasies about this venture.”
- “A Wonder in My Soul” by Marcus Gardley (World premiere, April 10-May 3, 2015): Set in the Bronzeville neighborhood, the play centers on the feuding members of a 1960s Chicago rhythm and blues group called the Soul Singers, who unwillingly reunite after 35 years for a concert to raise money for a community center. The musically enriched drama focuses on the opposite pulls of ambition and the bonds of family. “It’s like an emotional memory journey,” says Yew. “It’s about a black woman who takes a trip back to the South, the source of the great migration of black people to cities like Detroit and Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s. This is part of Marcus’ exploration of the history of the Bronzeville neighborhood, what the migration was all about and the search for a home. The play also involves an element of magical realism.”
- “The Who & The What” by Ayad Akhtar (Midwest premiere, June 19-July 12, 2015): Raised in a conservative Muslim family in Atlanta, the outspoken and brilliant Zarina recently completed a book about women and Islam. When her traditional father and sister discover the manuscript, it threatens to tear her family apart. Akhtar’s play explores the gulf that can divide tradition and contemporary lives. “Akhtar is very knowledgeable about Islam, and this play offers a rarely heard feminist version,” says Yew. “It’s a wonderful domestic drama and comedy that unfolds within this close family about the role of women in a household run by a man. It’s quite moving and poignant, and it questions traditions like Islamic women walking behind men. The daughter is American born, and she wants to break that culture.”
Since its founding in 1974, Victory Gardens claims more world premieres than any other Chicago theater, an initiative recognized nationally when the company received the 2001 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Located at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, the company utilizes a 299-seat main stage and the 109-seat Richard Christiansen Theater.
- Official website of Victory Gardens: VictoryGardens.org
- Review of Ariel Dorfman’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ at Victory Gardens: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Samuel D. Hunter’s ‘The Whale’ at Victory Gardens: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com