Theater 2015-16: Raven expands to five plays, kicks off season with three Midwest premieres
14th in a series of season previews: Curtain rises Sept. 22 with Mark Stein’s death row vaudeville “The Scottsboro Boys.” Also on tap is Raven’s third Horton Foote play in three years, “The Old Friends.”
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz
Opening with a run of Midwest premieres, Raven Theatre expands from four plays to five this season to capitalize on the opportunity offered by its dual performing spaces. And first up is a Mark Stein’s searing “entertainment” with the long, ironically evocative title of “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow).”
“I suspect this is a part of American history that a lot of people are not familiar with,” says Raven’s founding aristic director, Michael Menendian. “Nine young African-American boys, ages 12-18, hoboing on a train – something a lot of people did during those Depression years – from Chattanooga to Memphis. Some white women falsely accuse them of rape. The incident became a cause célèbre.”
A second Midwest premiere, Boo Killebrew’s “The Play About My Dad,” which recalls one family’s immersion in the perils and tribulations of Hurricane Katrina, leads to yet a third: Horton Foote’s “The Old Friends,” which examines the moral canker that infects some Texans of great wealth.
It will be Raven’s third straight season to present one of Foote’s plays, following “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Dividing the Estate.”
“We got the rights to ‘The Old Friends’ through (the playwright’s daughter) Hallie Foote, who visited us during our run of ‘Dividing the Estate,’” says Menendian. “But this is not a story about inheritance. It’s about people who have more money than they know what to do with. It has some of intensity of (Edward Albee’s) ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.’ A widow returns home to Texas from South Africa penniless, and has to make a new life amidst materialism, greed and alcohol.”
Raven’s robust plan for 2015-16, its 33rd season, includes three productions in its larger, 130-seat venue and two in the more intimate 60-seat theater.
“Because we present rental shows, I think there’s been some confusion about Raven’s identity in the public view,” says Menendian. “We want to put our own stamp on this theater, and to that end we’re expanding to five shows with a second production in the smaller space. We intend to make this place work for us, for Raven.”
The 2015-16 season in brief:
- “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)” by Mark Stein with music and lyrics by Harley White, Jr., (Midwest premiere, Sept. 22-Nov. 14): Based on a historical incident, this surreal, satirical play concerns nine African-American teenagers who were falsely convicted of assaulting two white women and spent decades in the legal system fighting for their lives. The boys return from eternity to the stage, where they keep their story alive through songs, a magic act, a ventriloquist act, skits and soft shoe — all to convey the tawdry show that their case became. “I was so moved when I read this play,” says Menendian. “The production involves a lot of things – costumes, props, masks and of course music. From an artistic standpoint, it’s quite challenging.”
- “The Play About My Dad” by Boo Killebrew (Midwest premiere, Oct. 26-Nov. 28): The dad in question is the playwright’s father, a doctor in Gulfport, Miss., who stayed behind during Hurricane Katrina to tend to those who couldn’t or wouldn’t evacuate to safety when the waters began to rise. Their fights for survival against the storm are played against the backdrop of the doctor’s relationship with his now-adult daughter, the author. Katrina, which struck in August 2005, was among the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. The hurricane and subsequent flooding resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200 people. “This is really several stories – flashbacks to incidents from the hurricane like ambulance drivers stuck in the rising flood and an African-American woman trapped in her home,” says Menendian. “They’re woven together with the author’s own story about her fractured family, and the failure of the father to stay with his wife and daughter.”
- “The Old Friends” by Horton Foote (Midwest premiere, Feb. 2-March 26, 2016): Set in the 1960s in the fictional town of Harrison, Tex., “The Old Friends” tells of the combative members of two old-money Texas families. When hometown beauty Sibyl returns to Harrison after a long absence, not quite forgotten passions and jealousies resurface in a comedy that is brutally satiric in its depiction of small-town people with big money. “Basically,” says Menendian, “this play is about some rich people who have nothing better to do with their time than backstabbing and getting drunk.”
- “A Loss of Roses” by William Inge (Feb. 22-April 2, 2016): A widow and her 21-year-old son are getting by in a small Depression-era Kansas town when their old friend, a down-on-her-luck but attractive actress, moves in with them. They learn that survival comes at a price and that moving on requires letting go. “This is a beautiful story that’s been on our back burner for a long time,” says Menendian. “It’s about people in the heartland striving to keep their heads above water. And it’s a sad love story with a sense of loss that’s very real.”
- “The House of Blue Leaves” by John Guare (April 26-June 4, 2016): In Queens, N.Y., at the time of Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit, struggling songwriter Artie wants to be famous and feel important while his heavily medicated wife Bananas just wants to feel. Can Artie’s old high school buddy, now a Hollywood movie producer, give him a shot at the big time? Or will a blessing from the pope do the trick? Living means more than just survival to these misfits in this darkly funny play. “It’s a pathetic story about the American dream, and another play that’s been on our short list for several years,” says Menendian. “Artie is an aspiring songwriter who thinks he can make it big, but he really isn’t all that talented. His young son wants to blow up the pope’s limo, and the cops are looking for the kid. The laughter comes from very dark truths.”
Raven Theatre, located at 6157 North Clark Street, on the corner of Clark and Granville in Chicago, primarily serves the city’s far north communities of Edgewater, Rogers Park and Andersonville, though it can also claim a broad base of support from across the Chicagoland area. Easily accessible by car, the theater is 15 minutes from the Eden’s Expressway (Peterson exit east) and 5 minutes from the north end of Lake Shore Drive. It’s also convenient by train. Take the Red Line to the Granville station, then walk west on Granville to Clark Street.
- Official website of Raven Theatre: RavenTheatre.com
- Review of “Beast on the Moon” at Raven: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Role Playing: Sophia Menendian as Seta in “Beast on the Moon”: Read the interview at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Vieux Carre” at Raven: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “Playboy of the Western World” at Raven: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of “The Price” at Raven: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Role Playing: Chuck Spencer as Victor Franz in “The Price”: Read the interview at ChicagoOntheAisle.com