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Theater 2014-15: Ready for something new? Drop in any time this season at Steppenwolf

Submitted by on Sep 23, 2014 – 9:51 pm

Ensemble members, from left, Francis Guinan ('The Night Alive'), K. Todd Freeman ('Airline Highway'), Alana Arenas )'Marie Antoinette'), John Mahoney ('The Herd'), Tim Hopper ('Grand Concourse'). (Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre)17th in a series of season previews: Five Chicago firsts include Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive,” American premiere of Rory Kinnear’s “The Herd,” world premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway.”

By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz

The 2014-15 season at Steppenwolf Theatre is for drama buffs with a taste for adventure. Every play on the calendar is new to Chicago. One show is an American first, and also waiting in the wings is a world premiere.

Steppenwolf  opens with the Chicago unveiling of “The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson, as hot a playwright as you’ll find in the theater world today. If you haven’t seen “The Seafarer,” or if it isn’t at the top of your must-see list, raise your hand. Thought so.

Conor McPherson's 'The Night Alive' leads off Steppenwolf's season. (Courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre)“His writing is so poetic, it lifts off the page,” says Steppenwolf associate artistic director Erica Daniels. “It hits people in a very real and heart-felt way. Nobody deals more perceptively with middle-aged male angst. And we all have our regrets and our ghosts. McPherson’s characters are rich and full of life. He shows us the bad, the ugly, the mistakes – real human beings.”

In “The Night Alive,” a failure-in-the-making called Tommy, divorced and adrift, sees his life take a serendipitous turn for the better when he rescues a down-trodden woman from an attacker. But how will he deal with this responsibility sudden fallen into his lap?

“She comes with baggage,” says Daniels. “There’s an ex-boyfriend she’s running away from, and he’s confronting demons. McPherson writes ghost-like themes really well. You often don’t know where you are in reality.”

The world premiere follows — Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway,” about a veteran, and venerated, New Orleans burlesque performer who summons her pals to a proper funeral for her before she dies. So she can enjoy it, too.

“It’s a huge and ambitious play about this bunch of less-than-desirables – hustlers, strippers, philosophers – gather at a once-glorious hotel,” says Daniels. “It has some of the feeling of (Lanford Wilson’s) ‘Hot l Baltimore’ – a bizarre mix of people at a certain point in their lives.”

The 2014-14 season in brief:

  • Playwright Conor McPherson“The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson (Chicago premiere, Sept. 27-Nov. 16): The kindness of strangers comes with complications. Tommy is getting by—kind of: He is crashing in his uncle’s ramshackle house in Dublin, dodging his estranged family, and plotting a parade of get-rich-quick scenes with his buddy Doc. Then one day he defends a destitute woman against a violent attack, and a fragile glimmer of hope appears as Tommy tends to her in his run-down room. “Tommy has reached middle age and he’s lost, he has a failed marriage and a complicated relationship with his daughter,” says Daniels. “He slips into this care-taking role with a younger woman — something he doesn’t seem to be able to do with his own children.”
  • Playwright Lisa D'Amour (Zach Smith)“Airline Highway” by Lisa D’Amour (World premiere, Dec. 13-Feb. 8, 2015): In the parking lot of The Hummingbird, a once-glamorous motel on New Orleans’ infamous Airline Highway, a group of friends gather. A rag-tag collection of strippers, hustlers and philosophers have come together to celebrate the life of Miss Ruby, an iconic burlesque performer who has requested a funeral before she dies. The party rages through the night as old friends resurface to pay their respects. “It’s been very exciting working on this with Lisa,” says Daniels. “Over the last couple of years, she’s done rewrite after rewrite, virtually work-shopping it. There’s a world-weary existential quality to it — all these people celebrating the life of Ms. Ruby, who’s about to die.”
  • Playwright David Adjmi“Marie Antoinette” by David Adjmi (Chicago premiere, Feb. 14-May 10): Before Britney Spears and Justin Bieber, there was Marie Antoinette. In David Adjmi’s contemporary take on the young queen of France, Marie is a confection created by a society that values extravagance and artifice. But France’s love affair with the royals sours as revolution brews, and for Marie, the political suddenly becomes very personal. From the light and breezy banter at the palace to the surging chants of “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” in the streets, “Marie Antoinette” holds a mirror up to contemporary society and our own perhaps terminal obsession with amusement. “It’s set in historical time, but with a modern twist,” says Daniels. “We don’t get the usual image of Marie. We see her as a person, talking with her girlfriends and with her son. She may or may not have been who she appeared to be. The play withholds judgment.”
  • Playwright Rory Kinnear“The Herd” by British playwright Rory Kinnear (American premiere, April 11-June 7): It’s Andy’s 21st birthday and as the family gathers, two unexpected guests appear, straining the delicate dynamic. With a deft comic touch, The Herd introduces us to a suburban English family that has had to re-organize around the extraordinary needs of one of their own, bringing to light the challenges of reconciliation, the power of shared memories and the irresistible pull of family. “This is Kinnear’s first play, and it’s a beautiful family drama,” says Daniels. “It digs into roles we choose to play within a family and how that can shift when someone becomes ill or someone new is introduced. There’s some really good comedy in it, and the portraits are fantastic.”
  • Playwright Heidi Schreck“Grand Concourse” by Heidi Schreck (Chicago premiere, July 11-Aug. 30, 2015): Having dedicated her life to religious service, Shelley runs a Bronx soup kitchen with unsentimental efficiency. Her brisk nature masks an unsettling fear that her efforts are meaningless. When Emma — a rainbow-haired college dropout — arrives to volunteer, her well-intentioned recklessness pushes Shelley over the edge. “Grand Concourse” asks big questions about the value of compassion and the limits of forgiveness. “Actors love roles they can really get into, and ‘Grand Concourse’ gives us an older woman and a young woman meeting at a crossroads in their lives,” says Daniels. “Their relationship forces the nun to question what she’s doing, who she got here and where she’s going.”

Steppenwolf TheatreGetting there:

Established in 1974, Steppenwolf built its present theater at 1650 North Halsted St. in 1991. Steppenwolf has grown into a company of  44 ensemble members whose strengths include acting, directing, play writing and textual adaptation. Now in its fourth decade as a professional theater company, Steppenwolf has received numerous national and international awards, including a series of Tony Awards, and The National Medal of Arts. The theater is easily reached via the L by taking the Red Line to the North and Clybourn stop. Walk a half-block east to Halstead, then north one block.
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