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'Three Sisters,' 'Crowns' and 'Oedipus': Summer shows with much at stake

Gang ActivityRegina TaylorScott RudinA Streetcar Named Desire (movie)Goodman TheatreVictory Gardens Theatre

Last week, the Goodman Theatre resigned itself to the news director Robert Falls' production of "The Iceman Cometh" was not going to Broadway. The combination of the show's long running time, problems with theater availability, the schedule of its star Nathan Lane, and, above all, high costs and little time to recoup them, overwhelmed the pervasive sense that this was an American production that deserved to be seen on the Great White Way.

"I wish the ending had been different," New York producer Scott Rudin said to me this week, after negotiating with other interested producing parties. It may yet be. But the current end result is not necessarily a bad thing for Chicago theater. Here was a production that was very widely praised, and not just by those with a vested interest, or the regular Chicago theater boosters. Praise for this show went broader than that and thus was more meaningful. If Chicago is to grow as a destination for cultural tourists, it's crucial that there are world-class shows here that you just cannot see anywhere else. This, indisputably, was one such show.

The Goodman this weekend turns its attention to Regina Taylor's "Crowns," another show it would like to see on Broadway, especially since Taylor is both one of its artistic associates and, for the last year or so, a Chicago resident. And this is a far more conventional production, without the problems that afflicted "Iceman." "Crowns," actually, is an interesting case. An adaptation of the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, the piece was well-received at New York's Second Stage a decade or so ago, but never moved to Broadway, instead becoming known as a regional-theater hit. Still, thanks to recent shows aimed at a black audience such as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and, this last season, the under-rated production of"A Streetcar Named Desire," I'd say the Broadway climate is better now for a show that celebrates the vitality of the African-American Protestant church and the spirit of those who worship. Taylor has been doing more work on the show, increasing both its scope and musicality. If "Iceman" was too big for Broadway, "Crowns" is a show that has to get a bit bigger to have a shot. On Sunday, I will be able to see the result.

This post-holiday weekend actually is the big theater weekend of the summer, with the Steppenwolf, Goodman and Victory Gardens Theater all opening major productions within 48 hours of one another. Steppenwolf bows the first Chicago production of Tracy Letts' new take on "Three Sisters." In an appearance at the Printers Row Lit Fest earlier this summer, Letts called his version of the Chekhov masterwork an adaptation rather than a translation. The production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, has undergone a large number of unanticipated cast changes since it was first announced; it will be interesting to see how and if the cast has gelled. Steppenwolf could use a strong summer hit — even Chekhov can be a hit — not least because it's on the verge of announcing a big campaign to raise money for its upcoming expansion of its Lincoln Park campus.

But of the three companies with openings this weekend, I'd say Victory Gardens is the theater with the most at stake. Changes, not the least of which was the departure of Sandy Shinner from the position of associate artistic director, have roiled the venerable theater company. Chay Yew, the new artistic director, clearly is eager to make a break from the past, stage edgier works and attract a younger and more diverse audience. "Oedipus El Rey," the fresh Luis Alfaro vision of the Sophoclean drama set on the streets of Los Angeles and that looks at the violent fates of gang members through a tragic prism, is exactly the kind of show Yew has said he wants to produce. Now he has to direct it well and, equally as important, find an audience that combines longtime Victory Gardens supporters with fresh blood.

Summer in Chicago has many sides. With all the headlines of gang-related shootings so far this broiling season, "Oedipus El Rey" might well be the most essential Chicago show of all.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

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