A bounty of theater productions is heating up mid-winter in Baltimore.
Within the space of a few days, a hit Broadway musical and a vintage feminist play will be onstage, both gaining fresh relevance from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements for sexual assault awareness and gender equality. A classic family drama will touch on another pertinent topic, drug addiction, while a recent work looks at the perennial issue of working-class job losses.
Other pieces opening in this same active stretch will examine fascinating historic figures — a barrier-breaking African-American actor of the 19th century, a major Hollywood icon of the 20th.
It all adds up to a diverse, intriguing assortment of theatrical possibilities. Here’s a preview of what to expect:
‘Waitress’ at Hippodrome
In the bittersweet 2007 film “Waitress,” Jenna, an inventive pie-maker trapped with a boorish, brutish husband, struggles to be heard, to be appreciated.
Transformed into a musical that opened in 2016 on Broadway, “Waitress” seems even more telling as the national touring production heads to Baltimore.
“There are so many issues in the show that are important to these times,” says Jessie Nelson, who wrote the book for the musical. “It makes all of us involved with the show so happy that the ‘Time’s Up’ moment has happened.”
Adds Desi Oakley, who plays Jenna in the tour cast: “The Me Too movement has made our story even more poignant and more worth telling. I wonder how many women in the audience might be seeing this and thinking about their own difficult situations.”
Oakley views Jenna as a woman “finding out who she really is.” Part of that discovery is a relationship the reluctantly pregnant Jenna enters with her married physician.
“The affair was never really about the doctor, but what he showed her,” Oakley says. “Jenna has never been valued the way he values her.”
Although Jenna’s husband, Earl, remains quite a villain in the musical, Nelson created a backstory to explain why the two became a couple.
“I do have some sympathy for Earl,” Nelson says. “But you don’t want the audience to think he’s one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting away from being a great guy.”
Adultery, drinking, single momhood — not your everyday topics for a musical. But “Waitress,” with songs by Sara Bareilles, maintains the movie’s balance of light and dark.
“If you loved the movie,” Oakley says, “you’ll love the musical.”
‘Waitress’ runs Jan. 30 to Feb. 4 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. $42 to $240. 800-982-2787, ticketmaster.com.
‘Skeleton Crew’ at Center Stage
Baltimore Center Stage scored a hit recently with “Detroit ’67,” the first of Dominique Morisseau’s incisive plays about her troubled home town. Now, the theater turns to the third — “Skeleton Crew,” a drama about endangered autoworkers.
“It takes place in the break room of a Detroit factory,” says Nicole A. Watson, who directs the Center Stage production. “It’s about how the workers live through their problems, what happens when work goes away because jobs are going to other places or replaced by robots.”
Watson finds wide relevance in the play.
“The characters are African-American, but their problems are the same for any working-class people,” the director says. “The play asks audiences to really think about what unemployment means. Behind every [statistic] is a person with a name and a family and dreams.”
Job loss may be a dispiriting subject, but Watson doesn’t consider “Skeleton Crew” all gloom.
“O’Neill knew these people in his soul,” Hicken says. “The play deals with the impact of addiction on families, and that’s something universal, certainly with the opioid crisis today. But the play is really uplifting, in a way, because of the resilience O’Neill writes into these characters. We’re trying not to end on a deep, hopeless note.”
That’s a goal of Deborah Hazlett, too. Marking her 20th year as a member of Everyman’s resident company, she portrays the mother.
“There is almost an intake of breath, of possibility at the end about what the next day will bring,” says Hazlett, who is relishing the opportunity to perform O’Neill. “I get to do a character and a play I love, with a company I adore, at a theater that is my heart — I don’t know how it could get any sweeter.”
After preview performances Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” runs Feb. 2 to March 4 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. $10 to $65. 410-752-2208, everymantheatre.org.
‘Red Velvet’ at Chesapeake Shakespeare
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will shine a light on a Shakespearean actor in Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play “Red Velvet” — Ira Aldridge, a New York-born African-American who found fame in Europe starting in the early 1800s.
“The most wonderful thing about ‘Red Velvet’ is that it offers a slice of history that a lot of people just are not aware of, and probably wouldn’t experience otherwise,” says the play’s director, Shirley Basfield Dunlap.
That slice of history: In 1833, at London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, audiences for the first time saw a black man perform the title role of “Othello,” rather than a white one in blackface.
“Its a story that needs to be told,” says Christian R. Gibbs, who plays Aldridge in “Red Velvet.” “It’s amazing to learn about someone who dared to dream and try to make things equal. Aldridge was asked to leave the Covent Garden theater after two nights, essentially because of being a black man on the stage.”
An undeterred Aldridge went on to enjoy a successful career, especially in Eastern Europe. He died just before a planned tour of post-Emancipation America.
“I think people will go home thinking ‘This play takes place in the 1800s but, wow, I still see the same issues and concerns today.’ We are not so far removed from the racial issues in this play,” Dunlap says.
After preview performances Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, ‘Red Velvet’ runs Feb. 2 to Feb. 25 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 S. Calvert St. $16 to $50. 410-244-8570, chesapeakeshakespeare.com.
‘Cloud 9’ at Iron Crow
Caryl Churchill, one of Britain's greatest playwrights, confronts such volatile issues as colonialism, feminism and politics. Iron Crow Theatre offers a brilliant example from 1979, “Cloud 9,” directed by Natka Bianchini.
“This is the play that put [Churchill] on the map,” Bianchini says. “Almost 40 years ago, she was looking at race, gender, sexual orientation, the idea of what masculine and feminine means.”
This comical, satirical piece also boasts a distinctive form.
“It’s tricky to do because it’s got this unconventional construction,” Bianchini says. “The play starts in Africa in 1880 and moves to London 1980, but the characters only age 25 years. Everybody plays a different character in Act 2.”
The themes in “Cloud 9” have not lost their edge.
“In 2018, with the ‘Me Too’ movement and people talking about taking women seriously,” Bianchini says, “some of the lines feel like they were written last week.”
‘Cloud 9’ opens Jan. 26 and runs through Feb. 4 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. $15 to $30. 443-637-2769, ironcrowtheatre.org.
‘Walt Disney’ at Single Carrot
The full title of Lucas Hnath’s 2013 play is a mouthful: “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.” The darkly comic piece envisions Disney reading a screenplay he wrote about his own last days.
This man fictionalized here is definitely not the kindly Uncle Walt of yore, but a more difficult fellow, someone all too used to getting things his way.
“We read the script pre- and post-election,” says Genevieve de Mahy, who, with Matthew Shea, is co-directing Single Carrot Theatre’s production. “We found very striking similarities in language and behavioral patterns to [Donald Trump]. It’s interesting to look at the psychology of an ego-centric, manipulative personality, the type who centers everything around themselves — without actually doing a play that’s overtly political or about Trump.”
In staging Hnath’s play, Single Carrot will introduce what de Mahy describes as “some Disney-esque elements.”
“The audience will enter the space in a different way,” she says. “You won’t just walk in and find your seat. Disney will be orchestrating the whole audience experience.”
After preview performances Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, ‘A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney’ runs Feb. 2-25 at Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St. $25 to $29. 443-844-9253, singlecarrot.com.