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Theater 2018-19: Getting a real sense of home, Writers plans far-ranging season in new house

Submitted by on Aug 17, 2018 – 2:49 pm

First in a series of season previews: Six productions are lined up for Writers Theatre on the Nichols mainstage and the Gillian black box. 
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Michael Halberstam, founding artistic director of the 27-year-old Writers Theatre, looks back on the company’s first two full seasons in its new Glencoe home as “a very exciting journey, and with this season we feel we’ve really found the right mix for both of our versatile spaces.”

Six plays are in view for the 255-seat Nichols Theatre and the flexible Gillian, which can seat anywhere from 50-99. The shows take in a wide swath of drama, from the season-opening “Vietgone,” Qui Nguyen’s play about two young refugees from Vietnam finding their way in America, to Shakespeare’s lyrical comedy “Twelfth Night” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson’s vibrant story about African American musicians battling for their own piece of the American dream.

“Both spaces preserve the hybrid essence of our former venues,” says Halberstam. “We have found the Nichols to be amazingly fluid, largely because of the number of aisles built into the design and the access they offer. Sometimes it feels like you’re in the most intimate of Chicago storefront theaters – but then you can turn around and put a Broadway-level engagement there.” As for the Gillian, an endlessly configurable black box: “We’re only beginning to understand and play with the possibilities there.”

The 2018-19 season in brief:
  • “Vietgone” by Qui Nguyen (Aug. 22-Sept. 23, Nichols Theatre): It’s 1975, shortly after the fall of Saigon, and two young Vietnamese survivors meet in a refugee camp in mid-America. Will this strange new land of cowboys, hippies and bikers allow them to fall in love? The play’s irreverent style flips stereotypes on their head, remixing history and culture into a sexy, funny and energetic fantasia on how two soul mates might have found each other in a turbulent time. “It’s a refreshing, unabashed romantic comedy with an edge of drama,” says Halberstam. “The subject matter is epic, but treated in a stylish way. It’s also part ‘Hamilton’ in its use of vernacular rap.”
  • “Witch” by Jen Silverman (World premiere Sept. 26-Dec. 16, Gillian): In this fresh take on the Jacobean play “The Witch of Edmonton,” mischief is afoot in a sleepy village and the fate of the world is at stake in this modern fable. When the emotionally conflicted son of the local lord collides with an ambitious newcomer, help presents itself to both of them in the same guise – as the Devil himself. But while these two young men take advantage of the Devil’s bargain to accomplish their own questionable ends, someone else in town stands her ground – Elizabeth, an outcast whom everyone believes to be a witch. “One of the things I’ve been impressed with in the new generation of playwrights is how they’re taking women more seriously,” says Halberstam. “‘Witch’ is an entertaining play that deals with a range of issues – love, power, sexuality, patriarchy and hope.”
  • “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare (Nov. 7-Dec. 16, Nichols): When young Viola is shipwrecked on an unfamiliar shore, presuming her twin brother drowned in the same wreck, she must disguise herself as a man to secure a job with the local Duke Orsino. But when asked to further Orsino’s romantic interests with the beautiful Olivia, she finds herself tangled in an increasingly confused love triangle. Crossed wires, cross purposes and crossed garters abound. “This wonderful comedy was meant to be performed around the winter solstice,” notes Halberstam, who will direct. “It’s perfect for that hunger we have at the holidays for something buoyant and effervescent.”
  • “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” by August Wilson (Feb. 6-March 17, 2019, Nichols): This visceral American classic serves as the 1920s chapter of Wilson’s epic “century cycle.” What begins as a routine recording session becomes more strained as tensions rise between the members of a blues band and the owners of the recording studio. The white producers mean to exploit the talents of the band, especially the gifted but temperamental trumpet player Levee. But when Ma insists on having things her way, tensions are enflamed and the play builds to a searing climax. “‘Ma Rainey’ deals with the issues of being a minority artist in a racist milieu,” says Halberstam. The director is Ron OJ Parson, an authority on the Wilson canon whom Halberstam calls “one of the finest directors in the country. He deconstructs a play without losing sight of the playwright’s intentions, and makes you look at it in a fresh way.”
  • “A Number” by Caryl Churchill (March 20-June 9, 2019, Gillian): How much do we pass on to our children and is it really possible to atone for our mistakes? In Churchill’s unpredictable and suspenseful play, which addresses the subject of human cloning, a father meets his “estranged” son over several visits. As they reconnect, multiplying lies are uncovered, revealing a horrifying truth about their shared past. Halberstam says, well, very little. “I don’t want to spoil anything.”
  •  “Next to Normal,” with music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey (May 8-June 16, 2019, Nichols): On the outside, the Goodmans seem like the average American family: house in the suburbs, white picket fence and two sharp-witted kids. But inside, their lives are anything but normal, with long-buried secrets that threaten to tear them apart. This explosive musical, which won several 2009 Tony Awards, uses wry humor and brutal honesty to explore how family trauma can fracture the American dream, even while ultimately leading to a chance at new beginnings. Says Halberstam: “This is such a powerful and complex story, told with an essential resonance and depth.”

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