Theater 2019-20: Move to a new home in view as Northlight dots 45th season with premieres
Sixth in a series of season previews: Skokie troupe plans shift to Evanston in two years. For now, it’s world premieres at center stage.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
With one world premiere looming up, only to be followed immediately by another, Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones’ hands and plate and time are pretty well filled. But in the cracks he’s also planning ahead to 2021-22, when Northlight expects to relocate from Skokie to a brand-new building in Evanston.
Jones says the new 350-seat theater, which is expected to cost some $20 million, will “light up a dark corner of Evanston. Within five years, we expect to generate $50 million for the community in terms of revenue coming to area restaurants, parking lots — and in taxes.” In practical terms of theater production, Jones envisions a facility with “real traps, large wings and flies.”
At hand, back in the immediate world, he’s looking at a 2019-20 season of five plays with two premieres concentrated at its center: “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, a second sequel by the same authors to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and “How a Boy Falls,” a new thriller by Steven Dietz.
The 2019-20 season in brief:
- “Mother of the Maid” by Jane Anderson (Through Oct. 20): Isabelle Arc is a hard-working, pious peasant woman with an odd and extraordinary daughter. When adolescent Joan announces she’s having visions, her mother isn’t quite sure if she should credit the Holy Spirit or teen hormones. But with faith in God and her destiny, Joan sets off to lead the French at war. As she ascends from farm girl to holy martyr, we follow the unexpected perspective of her proud, fierce, and frightened mom in this drama about the glories and challenges of raising an exceptional child. “It’s intimate and funny, messy and real,” says Jones. “But in order to access the piece on a personal level, we need to identify with the Mother and with Joan. So, Jane Anderson asks that it be played without classical acting, in the local speech and with no French or English accents. It’s really about the manipulation of a young girl on behalf of the state and the church.”
- “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon (World premiere, Nov. 7-Dec. 15): From the authors of the charming “Pride and Prejudice” sequel, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” comes a new companion piece. While the Bennets and Darcys are celebrating upstairs, the servants below stairs find themselves in the midst of a holiday scandal. Lydia’s ne’er-do-well husband Mr. Wickham has arrived, and it’s up to the loyal housekeeper, footman and new maid to keep the festivities running smoothly without revealing the unwelcome guest. As old misunderstandings and new secrets start to spiral out of control, the residents of Pemberley prove that family, forgiveness and the true spirit of giving always win the day. “The previous play was upstairs, this one is downstairs,” quips Jones.
- “How a Boy Falls” by Steven Dietz (World premiere, Jan. 23-March 1, 2020): A newly hired au pair is thrust into the midst of a mystery when the loss of a young boy casts suspicion on her and the boy’s wealthy parents. The parents are each seeking answers and retribution while the au pair is hatching a dangerous scheme of her own, and no one is exactly who they seem to be in a new psychological thriller that asks: Who can we trust? “This is a slow-burn thriller with a lot of twists and turns,” says Jones. “The situation is dangerous, troubling and mysterious, with some high tech involved. It feels very fresh.”
“Intimate Apparel” by Lynn Nottage (March 12-April 19): In 1905, the black seamstress Esther sews her way out of poverty stitch by delicate stitch, creating fine lingerie for her Manhattan clientele while longing for a husband and a future. She finds common ground with the Jewish merchant who sells her fabric, yet both know their relationship cannot be. So when correspondence with a lonesome Caribbean man leads to a marriage proposal, she accepts. But as her new marriage quickly turns to regret, Esther turns back to her sewing machine to rebuild her life and refashion her future. “The relationship between this black woman and the young Jewish rag dealer, who has beautiful material to sell to her, has haunted me since I read the play when it first came out (2003),” says Jones. “She’s such a sweet, loving artist, and the Jewish rag seller senses her inner beauty. It should have won the Pulitzer that year.”
- “Songs for Nobodies” by Joanna Murray-Smith (May 7-June 14): This one-woman tour-de-force celebrates the iconic work of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas. Unexpected encounters connect these legendary divas and the ordinary women whose lives were changed by their rise to fame. Featuring big-time hits such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Crazy” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “Songs for Nobodies” illuminates the power of song to share a story, heal a heartbreak and inspire a dream. “Powerful monologues elevate this show to something much more than a jukebox musical,” says Jones. “It tells the stories of the little people in the shadows – and how the greats have their own human frailty, and fame can be a trick of a vocal gift plus the blessing of luck.”
- Official Northlight Theatre website: Find it here