Theater 2019-20: Goodman turns its spotlight on women in themes personal, social, funny
Fourth in a series of season previews: Two world premieres cap wide-ranging fare from Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet to Roe vs. Wade.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
It wasn’t exactly planned that way, says Goodman Theatre managing producer Adam Belcuore, but when all the pieces were in place for 2019-20, the company had settled on a season dominated by women and women’s issues.
“Whether consciously or unconsciously, we arrived at a female-centric season,” says Belcuore. “Most of our plays are about women or written by women. We’re always looking to achieve gender parity, and these plays represent the work that’s speaking to us. When we look at our culture today and the #metoo movement, I think it’s fair to say our season reflects the world we’re living in.”
Goodman’s season opens with the world premiere of Lucas Hnath’s high-impact, deeply personal and quite unusual “Dana H.,” the story of his own mother’s abduction, in her words and voice, lip-synched by an actress. Then it’s on to Sarah Bernhardt’s radical turn as Hamlet as re-imagined by Theresa Rebeck and Lisa Loomer’s “Roe,” recalling the abortion battle of Roe vs. Wade. Later in the season comes the world premiere of Korde Arrington Tuttle’s “Graveyard Shift,” spun from the 2015 traffic stop and death of Sandra Bland.
The 2019-20 season in brief:
- “Dana H.” by Lucas Hnath (World premiere, Sept. 16-Oct. 6): Dana was a chaplain of a psych ward when she met – and was abducted by – a charismatic ex-convict searching for redemption. Based on a harrowing true story, the play is told in Dana’s own words and reconstructed for the stage by her son Lucas Hnath. “In something like a documentary, Lucas has created a fascinating piece of art,” says Belcuore. “It’s an amazing experience to watch an actor lip-synching the voice of Lucas’ mother. This pushes the boundaries of what a play can be.”
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” by Theresa Rebeck (Sept. 23-Oct 20): In 1899, legendary leading lady Sarah Bernhardt’s decision to assume the title role of Shakespeares’s “Hamlet” left critics and patriarchs aghast and indignant. Laced with forbidden romance and backstage gossip, high humor and human drama, this behind-the-scenes look at Bernhardt’s most ambitious role offers a portrait of one of theater’s most famous actresses – and infamous divas. “This is a joyous romp through history,” says Belcuore, “in the way that ‘Shakespeare in Love’ created its own story. It’s inspired by true events. Bernhardt was in her late fifties when she took on the role of Hamlet.”
- “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Tom Creamer from the book by Charles Dickens (Nov. 16-Dec. 29): Goodman’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” is a Chicago tradition extending back more than four decades. This tale of story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s discovery of kindness, compassion and redemption has been seen by some 1.5 million theatergoers. Once again, Larry Yando will portray the tight-fisted old curmudgeon who’s shone the light of his sins and his possibilities. “We are custodians of this remarkable tradition,” says Belcuore. “At this point, it’s bigger than all of us. At the heart of it is the incredible capacity for change that exists in all of us.”
- “Roe” by Lisa Loomer (Jan. 18-Feb. 23, 2020): Conceived in a pizza parlor and argued in the highest court in the land, 1973’s Roe v. Wade legalized abortion and is hotly debated still today. The two young women behind the trial – attorney Sarah Weddington and plaintiff Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”) – embark upon separate journeys that mirror the current polarization over the landmark decision. At once shocking and humorous, “Roe” illuminates the heart and passion that each side has for their cause. “I love how funny this play is,” says Belcuore. “This is such a polarizing issue, but the playwright has depicted both sides of the argument in a very human way. We see what happened in their lives before and after this crucial case.”
- “Graveyard Shift” by Korde Arrington Tuttle (World premiere, Feb. 7-March 8, 2020): Tuttle’s play was inspired by the legacy of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman who was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, in July 2015, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide. In the play, Janelle seizes the opportunity of a lifetime and relocates to Texas, moving in with her partner Kane. Meanwhile, a small-town police officer’s life is thrown into flux when the co-worker he’s romantically involved with decides to leave town. When their worlds collide, Janelle experiences first-hand how dangerous power can be. “The playwright has taken a moment from Sandra Bland’s life that we’ve all become familiar with and looked at how any of us might have her experience,” says Belcuore. “We also see the life of the cop who made the stop.”
- “Molly Sweeney” by Brian Friel (March 7-April 12, 2020): In this highly charged exploration of triumph and loss, Brian Friel reveals the unexpected consequences of a modern medical miracle. Visually impaired since infancy, Molly agrees to a procedure that will restore her sight. But is it Molly who benefits most – or her ambitious spouse or her doctor’s career? “The central question of the play,” says Belcuore, “is, who’s to say that someone else should experience life differently? It’s a tragedy that Molly’s voice is not heard by the two men who decide what’s best for her.”
- “School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play” by Jocelyn Bioh (March 27-April 26, 2020): This biting and buoyant comedy arrives in Chicago on the heels of an extended run Off-Broadway. As the reigning queen bee at Ghana’s most exclusive boarding school sets her sights on the Miss Universe pageant, a new student unexpectedly changes the game. “School Girls” spotlights the universal similarities – and glaring differences – of teenage girls around the globe. “This is a really funny look at school girls in Ghana, who turn out to be like girls everywhere,” says Belcuore. “The new girl who comes in is from America. The play’s got some teeth.”
- “American Mariachi” by José Cruz González (April 25-May 31, 2020): Familia, amor and tradición are at the heart of this new comedy about the freedom to dream big. Lucha spends her days caring for her ailing mother, but longs to shake up her 1970s home life. When a forgotten record album sparks her mother’s memory, Lucha and her cousin hit on a radical idea to create an all-female mariachi band. Their pursuit of that dream is infused with live mariachi music. “It’s an underdog story,” says Belcuore. “A young woman whose mother suffers from dementia decides to put together an all-female mariachi and bring music back into her mother’s life. I have no doubt that people will really like it.”
- “The Outsiders,” based on the novel by S.E. Hinton and the film by Francis Ford Coppola; book by Adam Rapp, music and lyrics by Jonathan Clay, Zach Chance and Justine Levine (June 19-Aug. 2, 2020): The story that defined a generation is reimagined in a groundbreaking musical for a new generation. In 1967 Tulsa, Okla., the hardened hearts, aching souls and romantic dreams of Ponyboy Curtis, Johnny Cade and their band of greasers take center stage in a fight for purpose and a quest for survival. “It’s a musical version of the book and film with a folk-country feel,” says Belcuore. “Essentially, it’s a young girl’s vision of masculinity where the guys are open about their emotions and their feelings. The fight and dance choreographers are working hand in hand on this one.”