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Theater 2015-16: It’s an energy surge at TimeLine as timeless Mike Nussbaum opens in ‘The Price’

Submitted by on Aug 24, 2015 – 9:29 pm

Mike Nussbaum will star in Arthur Miller's 'The Price' at Timeline Theatre. (Elissa Shortridge )Second in a series of season previews: At age 91, the super-veteran Nussbaum helps TimeLine launch its 19th year with a celebration of Arthur Miller’s centenary. Curtain up Aug. 27.

By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz

Surveying the scheme of plays, actors and directors for TimeLine Theatre’s 2015-16 season, its 19th, artist director PJ Powers’ voice fills with palpable excitement. The company’s opener, Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” observes the playwright’s 100th birth year – and it stars Chicago’s living legend, Mike Nussbaum, who’s not far behind Miller on that time line.

In 'Sunset Baby' by Dominique Morisseau, an imprisoned Black Power fighter confronts the legacy he left his bitter, abandoned daughter.“We are thrilled to be celebrating Arthur Miller and his body of work, so much of which is tied to the American dream,” says Powers. “‘The Price’ doesn’t get its due. It’s one of his great plays, about the life choices we must make and the baggage that comes with those choices.”

Nussbaum, who turns 92 in December, plays below his age as a wily Russian Jewish antique dealer “nearly 90 years old.” Says Powers: “At the very first reading, Mike was amazing. We all just sat there, like, wow.”

But there’s also a good deal more to a season that’s packed with creative energy and resonant of the cultural and historical relevance that fuels TimeLine’s engine.

In the first of three Chicago premieres, Leigh Fondakowski will be on hand to direct her new play “Spill,” about the massive British Petroleum oil spill off the coast of Louisiana in 2010 and its effect on both the environment and human lives.

“Leigh was the lead writer for ‘The Laramie Project,’” notes Powers. “She (and co-creator Reeva Wortel) went to the gulf and did hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors (of 11 oil workers who died in the explosion), community leaders and fishermen – people whose lives are tied to that locale and tied to the oil industry.”

Ron OJ Parson will direct Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby,” about the generational clash between an African American woman struggling with life on the hard side of Brooklyn and her father, a former participant in the Black Power movement, just released from prison.

Timeline 300Lucy Kirkwood’s “Chimerica,” inspired by the photo of the so-called Tank Man, a solitary Chinese civilian poised in front of a column of tanks during the historic Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, rounds out the season.

Meanwhile, TimeLine pursues a plan to relocate from its Wellington Avenue space into a portion of the now-closed Lyman Trumbull Elementary School building at Foster and Ashland. “It would be a really amazing home for us,” says Powers. “What we’ve hoping for is two performance spaces – one replicating our 99-seat venue and a larger, transformable space seating 200-275.” The idea, which according to Power has “a lot of support in the neighborhood,” is under community evaluation.

The 2015-16 season in brief:

  • “The Price” by Arthur Miller (presented at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Aug. 27-Nov. 22):  In a New York brownstone marked for demolition, two estranged brothers meet to sort through and sell their late father’s belongings. Having lost his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929, their father has left them a room full of old furniture and a lifetime’s worth of family baggage. What follows is a poignant look at the ways we are liberated or trapped by those we love. “This is a play about life’s choices,” says Powers. “The idea of American dream and death of the middle class is resonant here. This is a play about life choices, and how some people rebound from issues of historical significance and some can’t.
  • U.S. Coast Guard and BP set a fire to attempt control of spreading oil after the April 2010 explosion of the BP Horizon. (Defense.gov)Spill” by Leigh Fondakowski (Chicago premiere presented at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Oct. 30-Dec. 19): On April 20, 2010, the BP-run oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the shore of Louisiana, killing 11 and sending millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. With a dramatic story spun from hundreds of personal interviews with oil industry employees, fishermen, politicians, cleanup workers, scientists, and the families of those lost, “Spill” offers a collection of personal stories from the Louisiana bayous and confronts the true human and environmental costs of oil. “The arguments are complex,” says Powers. “I hope people don’t assume it’s a raant against big oil. Some of people who lost family members and livelihoods remain pro oil. There are no easy solutions. Somehow, the 11 guys who died were kind of pushed to the side. This play restores them to the forefront.”
  • Dominique Morisseau, author of 'Sunset Baby'“Sunset Baby” by Dominique Morisseau (Chicago premiere presented at TimeLine, Jan. 21-April 10, 2016): The personal and political collide in this exploration of a woman’s journey from a brutal existence to her own liberation. Her father, a former revolutionary in the Black Power movement, has finally come to Brooklyn to mend their relationship. But unprepared for the hardened, modern woman he finds, he is forced to confront the challenge of fatherhood and the gap between past and present. “Dominique Morisseau is one of the most exciting and promising young playwrights I’ve seen in a while,” says Powers. “Here writing is so lyrical, with an easy urban poetry about it. You see that in ‘Sunset Baby.’ It’s so natural, and so gorgeous”
  • The iconic image of 'Tank Man' at Tiananmen Square in 1989, trying to block the way with his own body, was shot by Jeff Widener for AP. (Wikipedia)“Chimerica” by Lucy Kirkwood (Chicago premiere, presented at TimeLine, May 12-July 31, 2016): In June 1989, as the Chinese government instituted a brutal crackdown on a pro-democracy rally at Tiananmen Square, the iconic image of one man standing alone in front of a military tank captivated the world. “Tank Man” emerged as a hero and a symbol of defiance in the face of tyranny, only to disappear forever. Twenty years later, a photojournalist searches for the truth about that mysterious man in a story that highlights the sharp differences, as well as similarities, between twin superpowers China and America. The result is an epic story that examines the nature of censorship, the cost of truth, and what it takes to maintain hope. “No one knows what happened to the guy,” says Powers. “The play explores the mystery of the Tank Man, but on a grander scale it also looks at increasing similarities between these two superpowers, the US and  China – how China has become more Westernized and how American dependence in China has evolved. Lucy KIrikwood’s writing is really fresh and smart.”

Getting there:

TimeLine Theatre entrance on Wellington AvenueMost TimeLine productions are performed inside a church building at 615 W. Wellington Ave., a pleasant residential street in the Lakeview East neighborhood, north of the Loop within easy walking distance of the Belmont CTA train stop (Red, Brown and Purple lines). But the company’s following has grown so large that it actually produces more than 52 weeks of theater annually. Thus, for the fourth time, one production, “The Spill,” will be presenteed at nearby Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.

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