Theater 2014-15: World premieres, ‘Smokefall’ reprise crown plans for Goodman’s 90th year
14th in a series of season previews: Veteran actor Mike Nussbaum stars in Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall”; premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s ironically titled “The World of Extreme Happiness” opens series.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
Goodman Theatre has a bountiful 90th season in store, punctuated by a pair of world premieres, an early remounting of Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall” from last season — with returning featured actor Mike Nussbaum, also 90! — and a revival of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” that will be enhanced by several related events.
Goodman resident director Chuck Smith will shepherd “Two Trains Running,” which in Wilson’s decade-by-decade portrait of the African-American experience focuses on the 1960s. “It’s a fairly quiet play, and not a lot happens,” says Steve Scott, producer at the Goodman. “It’s the time of the civil rights movement. We sit with these characters and see what the issues, for them, really were.”
The production will be surrounded by a number of related activities exploring the themes of “Two Trains Running” as well as Wilson’s work in general. “Chuck’s idea was not to simply do the show,” says Scott, “but to create a complete investigation with readings, scholarly discussions and a lot of different activities focusing on the point that Wilson should be considered in the same light as Albee and Miller — among the great American playwrights.”
All told, eight plays fill the Goodman docket, which opens with the premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “The World of Extreme Happiness,” about a Chinese girl who claws her way up from humble beginnings only to collide with grim events.
“This is a profound and eye-opening look at what the economic revolution in China has wrought for average citizens,” says Scott. “Change has brought hope, but at what price?”
Scott characterizes the second premiere, Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Upstairs Concierge,” as a contemporary farce “in the footsteps of Georges Feydeau.” It deals with a group of semi-celebrities who come to stay at a hotel and an eager new concierge who discovers that coping with celebrities isn’t an altogether glamorous job
Haidle’s “Smokefall,” last season’s hit seriocomedy, traces the arc of a disintegrating family – with Chicago theater fixture Mike Nussbaum as a grandfather in the clutches of dementia and highlighted by an existential dialogue between twins in the womb. This time the show will be moved into Goodman’s larger space. “And Noah has reworked it a bit,” says Scott, “especially to give the third act greater emotional sweep.”
The 2014-15 season in brief:
- “The World of Extreme Happiness” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig (World premiere co-production with Manhattan Theatre Club Sept. 22- October 12): When Sunny is born in rural China, her parents leave her in a slop bucket to die because she’s not a boy. She survives, and at age 14 leaves for the city, where she finds work in a factory and attends self-help classes in pursuit of a coveted office position. But when Sunny’s attempts at self-improvement lead to calamitous consequences for a fellow worker, she questions the system she’s spent her life trying to master. At once savage, tragic and funny, Cowhig’s play is a provocative examination of individuals struggling to shape their destinies amid China’s dizzying economic transformation. Following its Goodman Theatre run, “The World of Extreme Happiness” will open at the Manhattan Theatre Club. “It’s an absurdly funny mirror of what’s going on in China,” says Scott, “but it’s also very dark – tragic, really.”
- “Smokefall” by Noah Haidle (Sept. 29-Oct. 26): A reprise of a hit that opened its world-premiere run at the Goodman in 2013. Change is in the air as Violet prepares to bring twin boys into the world. Inside her womb, her unborn sons contemplate their future, while the world around her is in transformation: Her husband is secretly planning to leave her, her father is slipping into senility and her daughter has taken a vow of silence. “Smokefall” explores the lives of one family in a lyrical treatise on the fragility of life and the power of love. “‘Smokefall’ got such a strong response, and yet a lot of people didn’t get to see it, so we wanted to bring it back right away,” says Scott.
- “Rapture, Blister, Burn” by Gina Gionfriddo (Chicago premiere Jan. 26-Feb. 22, 2015): Grad school pals Catherine and Gwen pursued completely different lives after graduation. Catherine became a controversial author, while Gwen married Catherine’s ex-boyfriend Don and raised two sons. After a decade-long estrangement, the women decide to spend a summer reconnecting. But their impulsive attempt to trade places soon erupts in a heated battle for Don’s affection and a fiery examination of their feminist ideals. “This is a very funny play about two women in their late forties, at the end of the first wave of feminism, and what all that has meant to them,” says Scott. “One got married, the other is a noted feminist. In some ways, those choices haven’t paid off, and they decide to trade lives. It’s what everybody faces when they realize the dream still eludes you.”
- “Two Trains Running” by August Wilson (March 16-April 12, 2015): In 2007, Goodman Theatre became the first theater to produce all 10 plays in August Wilson’s 20th-century cycle, and previously produced “Two Trains Running” in 1993. The civil rights movement is sweeping across Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1969, but the promise of a better tomorrow hasn’t quite reached all of the city’s residents, some of whom gather daily at a favorite diner to gossip about the neighborhood, dream about their futures and confront the brutal realities of the present. Now diner proprietor Memphis must decide if he should allow the government to take over his building or sell the property to a ruthless businessman. Wilson explores a time of extraordinary change—and the ordinary people who get left behind. “It’s the ‘60s with all that was going on, and we see the response of a group of people to what’s going on outside, but also what’s going on with them,” says Scott. “Their struggles don’t necessarily reflect the political picture. So the title ‘Two Trains’ is metaphorical – the private and public worlds.”
- “The Upstairs Concierge” by Kristoffer Diaz (Goodman commission and world premiere, April 6-26, 2015): Ella can’t wait to start her new job as the upstairs concierge at a sleek hotel. Catering to celebrity guests is her dream — but it’s hard to keep track of which guests are in which room, which guest is the biggest celebrity and which guests like to strip naked. Playwright Kristoffer Diaz skewers today’s fame-obsessed society in this off-kilter new comedy. “It isn’t just that everybody’s a celebrity for 15 minutes,” says Scott, “but how that distorts your view of who you are and what you’re entitled to.”
- “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman (May 11-June 7, 2015): In this classic turn-of-the century study of family greed, brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard stand to earn millions funding an industrialized cotton mill, and seek help with the initial investment from their sister Regina. The refusal of Regina’s dying husband to finance the scheme sets off an explosive series of betrayals, shattering the Hubbard clan’s genteel facade and exposing their ruthless pursuit of wealth. Ferocious and bitterly funny, “The Little Foxes” is an absorbing chronicle of the dark side of the American dream and wealth’s corrupting power. “Everybody loves this play,” says Scott. “It’s an indictment of the class system we sometimes forget we have, and it’s a distant ancestor of (Tracy Letts’) ‘August: Osage County.’ Fundamentally, it’s about family, but with a strong feminist sensibility. After more than 70 years, it still speaks to us.”
- “stop. reset.,” written and directed by Regina Taylor (Chicago premiere, June 1-May 23, 2015): As e-books and digital technologies transform the literary world, Chicago businessman Alex Ames must confront the likely demise of his long-standing African-American book publishing company. While his employees fret over losing their jobs, Alex finds unlikely inspiration from a mysterious teenager, whose inventive, forward-thinking ideas may provide the solution to preserving Alex’s legacy. “There’s a ‘Twilight Zone’ aspect to the psychological and emotional weave of this play,” says Scott. “How does one deal with extreme changes in the world around you? The end of the play takes us into a different form of existence – a fascinating realm of new possibilities.”
- “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang (Chicago premiere, July 6-Aug. 2, 2015): Siblings Vanya and Sonia have spent their adult years trapped in mundane lives at their family’s cottage, caring for their ailing parents. Meanwhile their self-absorbed sister Masha, a glamorous movie star, has traveled the world in decadent style. After their soothsayer-cleaning woman Cassandra warns Vanya and Sonia of impending doom, Masha arrives unannounced, accompanied by her hunky young lover Spike. When Masha reveals plans that will upend the family, long-repressed resentments bubble over in a weekend full of wild costume parties, voodoo dolls and surprise romance. That grinning shadow in the room – could that be Chekhov? “Another play about families,” says Scott of this droll, modernist riff on all things Chekhovian. “What happens to siblings as they get older, get stuck, grow disappointed, jealous? It’s serious and yet very funny, even if you’ve never heard of Chekhov.”
The Goodman Theatre moved into its present home at 170 N. Dearborn, in 2000. Its Loop location places the Goodman at the heart of Chicago’s cultural and dining scene. The theater offers two performing venues, the main-stage Albert Theatre and the smaller Owen.
- Official website of Goodman Theatre: GoodmanTheatre.org
- In the bright mist of ‘Brigadoon’ at Goodman: Read the review at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of David Ives’ ‘Venus in Fur’ at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Tracy Scott Wilson’s ‘Buzzer’ at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Rebecca Gilman’s ‘Luna Gale’ at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Role Playing: Mary Beth Fisher as a burned-out social worker in ‘Luna Gale’: Read the interview at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Noah Haidle’s ‘Smokefall’ at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Cheryl L. West’s ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ ‘The Happiest Song Plays Last’ at Goodman: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: August Wilson, Christopher Durang, Chuck Smith, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Gina Gionfriddo, Goodman Theatre, Kristoffer Diaz, Lillian Hellman, Mike Nussbaum, Noah Haidle, Rapture Blister Burn, Regina Taylor, Smokefall, Steve Scott, stop reset, The Little Foxes, The Upstairs Concierge, The World of Extreme Happiness, Two Trains Running, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike