Here in the dog days of August — actually, they are pretty nice this year — people are supposed to be too busy chillin' to go to the theater. Traditionally, the fall theater season in Chicago does not really fire up until late September or early October. But there's a new trend in evidence. Jumping the gun on Labor Day.
TimeLine Theatre Company, which opens a new production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" next week, was the first major off-Loop company to try this ploy. Profiles Theatre, the North Side company known for its productions of works by Neil LaBute and other contemporary authors, was another early adopter.
But it's getting crowded now in late August. And with the exception of the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire's production of the Dolly Parton musical "9 to 5," the August openings hardly suggest summer frivolity. On the contrary, things are getting serious early.
When you look at the long history of the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, you can see that the Brian Yorkey-Tom Kitt Broadway musical "Next to Normal," which is about a woman struggling with the demands of her family and her own mental illness, is among the most challenging shows that particular venue has offered its loyal but generally traditional audience.
And the Mercury Theater on Chicago's North Side is betting a lot on its new production of "The Color Purple," featuring a Chicago and New York cast and directed by L. Walter Stearns. Opening night is Monday.
Meanwhile, Signal Ensemble Theatre is continuing its very understandable love affair with the writings of the fine young Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch by producing "This Is War," a piece about the Canadian forces in Afghanistan. Director Jonathan Berry is making his debut at the ensemble-based Strawdog Theatre, where he'll stage "Conversations on a Homecoming," the 1985 play from Tom Murphy about an Irishman who returns home from America. And Profiles is producing a new play titled "In God's Hat." Penned by Rhett Rossi, it's about two brothers struggling to re-establish their relationship after one of them has spent time behind bars.
Summer-stock fare, this is not.
Of course, by opening before things gets busy, at a time when there's not much competition for ink and audiences, smaller theaters are able to make more of a splash. Certainly, "Raisin," which will be directed at TimeLine by Ron OJ Parson, would be worth attention at any time of the year. No play has stronger connections to Chicago. The work is set here; Hansberry grew up here; and it was Chicago audiences and critics who buoyed this young playwright's work when "Raisin" played Chicago's Blackstone Theatre just prior to its New York run.
When "Raisin" arrived in Chicago for the first time in 1959 (Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett were in that first cast), the show was selling few tickets and struggling to open on Broadway. But Chicago turned it into a hit. The rest, as they say, is history. We'll have to see how Parson's production turns out (Greta Oglesby plays "Mama" Younger and Mildred Marie Langford plays Beneatha), but there's no better play to act as an informal beginning to another well-stocked fall season of Chicago.
More information on those companies following the old seasonal rules is to come in the next week or two. But it's already time to get off the beach and into a theater seat.
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