Trio of actresses set the bar high for 2014

The big wave of winter theater openings, many of which took place in subzero temperatures, is in a brief lull. The pace picks up again next week, but enough has come down to merit an update. This has been an especially notable couple of weeks for remarkable work by women of the Chicago theater.

To my mind, there are two not-to-be-missed shows in the Chicago area at present for those of you who follow such things. One is a refreshingly energetic new production at Writers Theatre of a classic drama, Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler." Not only does this production remind us of the whopping talents of Kimberly Senior, who directs, and Kate Fry, who stars, but this genuinely revisionist production takes a drama that often plays out as a patronizing psychoanalysis of an unhappy married woman and turns it into a study of a bunch of rapacious men in desperate need of some outlet for their desires and neuroses.

One thinks of Hedda as a flashy femme fatale and diva, the kind of role you might associate with, say, a Nicole Kidman or a Scarlett Johansson. Fry could not be further removed from that kind of vampish persona: She generally turns down offers of publicity, has no apparent interest whatsoever in the see-and-be-seen part of many actresses' lives, stays out of the spotlight whenever possible and insists on letting her work speak for itself. That inherent reluctance, that ingrained disdain for the clatter and chatter that surrounds most of the woman lucky enough to play this role, is what makes her counterintuitive Hedda so marvelous. Her work speaks, all right. It shouts, "Come and see me."

Then there's the formidable Mary Beth Fisher, starring in the excellent "Luna Gale" at the Goodman Theatre. Fisher's work in this new play, which deals with the issue of how best to serve an innocent infant born to a pair of ill-prepared drug users, is among the best of her distinguished career.

Fisher always looks miserable onstage when she is miscast in a lousy production, which has happened to her in Chicago from time to time. Not here, though. Fisher's affinity for the character of the harried social worker at the heart of Rebecca Gilman's drama is startlingly intense. Clearly, this part speaks to her. Yet more clearly, director Robert Falls has made her feel comfortable. Simply put, it's a phenomenal piece of acting, smart and deeply moving. There is considerable New York buzz about "Luna Gale," which makes sense. One hopes New York will understand it will be tough to do better than Fisher, even with a star name. In Chicago, you can see it with the original cast

Those two women have set the bar high for actresses in 2014; either piece of work would be the best of the year, some years. For a third, very fine female performance of the moment, you need to head to the Profiles Theatre Alley Stage, where you'll find Amy J. Carle playing a grieving mother in a new play by a young playwright named Johnna Adams.

"Gidion's Knot" (soon to be seen in a separate production in New York) is a two-hander wherein a mother with a dead child confronts the kid's homeroom teacher. It's a very interesting play. This kind of intense, real-time drama is tough to write, and it put me in mind of David Mamet's work, although Adams could not be more different in her focus, ideology and characterizations. So you get a decent play and a blistering performance from Carle, an actress who is in a competitive demographic in Chicago and who we see all too rarely on our leading stages. She's just on fire here; you almost pity Laura Hooper, who shares the stage with her and who does just fine as the teacher but has to be on her toes every second to keep up with the mother's never-ending tactics to get what she wants. It's another award-worthy performance.

So, 2014 is quite a year for dramatic Chicago actresses with maturity and experience. And it's only the end of January.

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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