A preview of Chicago’s autumn theater offerings

Kate Fry and Grace Smith will appear in “Mother of the Maid.”  (Photo by Greg Inda)

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

After a brief late-summer lull, Chicago theater is gearing up for an exciting fall. Besides a full roster of comedies, tragedies, melodramas, and musicals – quite a few of them premieres – there seem to be a lot of plays devoted to important historical events. Happily, quite a few of the city’s best actors are taking on roles that suit them perfectly.

Short runs of visiting one-person shows are not included in the listings below, but they range from David Payne’s “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” to John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons,” both part of Broadway in Chicago’s line-up. A number of theater festivals also are on the bill, among them “Destinos, The 3rd Chicago International Latino Theater Festival” Sept. 19-Oct. 27.

Here, chronologically, are 16 September and October productions not to miss. Call ahead for locations, times, tickets, and any changes.

Sept. 4

 “The Band’s Visit,” Cadillac Palace Theatre (800-775-2000) through Sept. 15

The New York Times called this winner of 10 Tony Awards, directed by Chicago native David Cromer, “one of the most ravishing musicals you will ever be seduced by.” Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin, with a book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, it tells the laughter-and-longing-filled story of an Egyptian band stranded in a remote Israeli village in the middle of the desert. The touring version doesn’t have Broadway stars Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, but Sasson Gabay and Chilina Kennedy should be worthy stand-ins.

Sept. 7

 “Midsummer, (A Play with Songs)” Greenhouse Theater Center (773-404-7336) through Oct. 6

Court Theatre-goers get to see different sides of regular Chaon Cross and Patrick Mulvey in this Midwest premiere of Scottish playwright David Grieg’s two-hander with folk-pop music by Gordon McIntyre that’s been called “a rowdier, Scottish-ier version of ‘Once.’ ” Most recently featured in “The Adventures of Augie March” (Cross played Thea to Mulvey’s Augie), here Cross is Helena, a high-powered attorney looking for revenge sex, who hooks up with Mulvey’s thief Bob for a one-night stand that turns into a raucous weekend of sex, car chases, gangsters, and so much more. They accompany themselves on various instruments, too.

Sept. 8

 “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” Mercury Theater Chicago (773-325-1700) through Nov. 3

You may not remember that this silly musical about King Arthur and company’s quest for the Holy Grail, ripped off from the classic film comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” enjoyed a  pre-Broadway development process and world premiere in Chicago, but a local reprise seems more than fitting. Walter Stearns directs, and Jonah Winston—last heard at the Mercury as the voice of Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors” – plays King Arthur in a large ensemble that also includes Meghan Murphy as the Lady of the Lake, Sean Fortunato as Sir Lancelot, and Greg Foster as Patsy. Their misadventures range from encounters with flying cows to flatulent Frenchmen.

Sept. 12

 “Five Presidents,” American Blues Theater at Stage 773 (773-654-3103) through Oct. 19

Ensemble member Rick Cleveland (“The West Wing,” “House of Cards”) returns with the Chicago premiere of his fictional account of what five past presidents discussed the only time they were ever together in the same place: the holding room prior to the memorial service for Richard Nixon in 1994.

John Carter Brown is George H.W. Bush with Jim Leaming as Ronald Reagan, Martin L’Herault as Jimmy Carter, Tom McElroy as Gerald Ford, Stephen Spencer as Bill Clinton, and Denzel Tsopnang as Agent Kirby, who pops in occasionally. Naturally, there’s lots of talk of conflicts and scandals. We can only imagine what it would have been like if more recent members of the world’s most exclusive club had been there.

Sept. 13

 “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Victory Gardens Theater (773-871-3000) through Oct. 13

Amazingly versatile Janet Ulrich Brooks stars as empathetic, unpaid advice columnist Sugar in Nia Vardalos’ (who played the role in New York) adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book about her experiences working in that capacity for online magazine “The Rumpus” from 2010 to 2012. Vanessa Stalling (“Photograph 51” at Court) directs the Q & A-format tearjerker about love, loss, pain, and forgiveness, and August Forman, Eric Slater, and Jessica Dean Turner are the letter writers seeking her guidance for sometimes unsolvable problems.

Sept. 16

 “The Great Leap,” Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre (312-335-1650) through Oct. 20

Steppenwolf’s season kicks off with the Chicago premiere of hot playwright Lauren Yee’s drama about basketball and culture clash. Set mostly in 1989, the same year Michael Jordan performed “the Shot” that sealed the Chicago Bulls victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers and that the People’s Liberation Army fired at demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, it bops back and forth between San Francisco’s Chinatown and Beijing to tell the story of Manford Lum (Glenn Orbrero), a scrappy star of sidewalk basketball courts who talks his way onto an American college team traveling to China for a “friendship” game. The contrasting styles of coaches Saul (Keith Kupferer) and Wen Chang (James Seol) help define the tensions of the post-Cultural Revolution era.

 

“Dana H,” Goodman Owen Theatre (312-443-3800) through Oct. 6

A co-production with Center Theatre Group that had its world premiere in Los Angeles in June, Lucas Hnath’s play about his mother’s harrowing five-month ordeal as the captive of an ex-con named Jim is one of the most unusual works about trauma you’re ever likely to see. Directed by Les Waters, Deirdre O’Connell portrays Dana, who lip-syncs to an actual recorded interview between her and Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the Civilians theater group. She had been a chaplain working on a psych ward when she was abducted and abused by Jim, who she’d been counseling after his brutal suicide attempt. Terrified, disoriented, and systematically brainwashed to accept his vision of the world, she’s an unreliable narrator, and our skepticism as we try to process her experience as a survivor becomes part of the story.

Sept. 18

 “Oslo,” TimeLine Theatre Company at Broadway Playhouse (773-281-8463 x6) through Oct. 20

TimeLine and Broadway in Chicago are collaborating on the Chicago premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Tony Award-winning, surprisingly humorous political thriller about the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords and the Israeli prime minister and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization shaking hands on the White House lawn in 1993. Directed by Nick Bowling, Scott Parkinson and Bri Sudia are protagonists Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul, the Norwegian husband and wife who initiated the personality-based secret peace talks that found the common ground between seemingly intractable foes.

Sept. 20

“Mother of the Maid,” Northlight Theatre (847-673-6300) through Oct. 20

Kate Fry is worth catching no matter what play she’s in, so I can’t wait to see her as Isabelle Arc in Jane Anderson’s moving portrait of a proud, pious, peasant mom who faces her fears and the challenges and rewards of watching an extraordinary (if odd)  daughter grow from farm girl to warrior to holy martyr. BJ Jones directs a cast that also includes Grace Smith as Joan and Kareem Bandealy as her father Jacques Arc.

 

“The King’s Speech,” The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (312-595-5600) through Oct. 20

The North American premiere of David Seidler’s 2012 play based on the eponymous 2010 movie (for which he wrote the Tony Award-winning screenplay) stars Harry Hadden-Paton (Broadway’s “My Fair Lady,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Crown”) as King George VI, who learns to overcome his stammer with unconventional help from Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by James Frain (“The Tudors,” “True Blood,” “The White Queen”). The A-list ensemble also includes Rebecca Night, Elizabeth Ledo, Kevin Gudahl, and John Judd, among others.

Sept. 21

 “King Hedley II,” Court Theatre (773-753-4472) through Oct. 13

Court opened last season with a remarkable, revelatory production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” directed by Ron OJ Parson, so here’s hoping he succeeds as splendidly with the ninth play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1985, it focuses on the trials and tribulations of an ex-con trying to piece together his life after seven years in prison. Kelvin Roston Jr. plays Hedley, and Kierra Bunch is his long-suffering wife Tonya.

Sept. 23

 “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” Goodman Albert Theatre (312-443-38)) through Oct. 20

Part backstage comedy, part exploration of gender roles, part deconstruction of Shakespeare, and all love letter to the theater, Theresa Rebeck’s dramedy about the legendary leading lady’s decision to take on the title role in “Hamlet” in 1899 is a fascinating character study. Terri McMahon plays one of the most famous actresses – and infamous divas – ever, while John Tufts is Edmond Rostand, who Rebeck casts as her lover. Donna Feore directs the ensemble, which also includes Amanda Drinkall, Jennifer Latimore, Luigi Sottile, and Larry Yando.

Oct. 2

 “A Doll’s House,” Writers Theatre Gillian Theatre (847-242-6000) through Dec. 15

Sandra Delgado and Artistic Director Michael Halberstam’s one-act adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play, directed by Lavina Jadhwani (“Vietgone” at Writers),  concentrates the combustible conflict between devoted young wife, Nora Helmer (Cher Álvarez), and Torvald (Gabriel Ruiz), the misguided husband she tries to protect, putting them both in jeopardy and testing their marriage. The theater’s intimacy should make it all the more intense.

Oct. 5

 “A Man of Good Hope” Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater (312-595-5600) through Oct. 13

The WorldStage series gets underway with Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble’s true coming-of-age story about Asad Abdullahi, a young Somali refugee who fled his country’s civil war, only to find himself in a new violent reality in South Africa. Based on a book by Jonny Steinberg, the co-production with the Young Vic, in association with the Royal Opera, Repons Foundation, X and Y, tackles pressing contemporary issues like human trafficking, migration, poverty, and xenophobia in an odyssey about resilience overflowing with glorious music.

Oct. 15

“Sunset Boulevard,” Porchlight Music Theatre (773-777-9884) through November 24

The incomparable Hollis Resnik could easily rest on her laurels but instead she’s taking on the larger-than-life role of fading silent-film star Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning first musical, here directed by Michael Weber. Billy Rude is Joe Gillis, the poor screenwriter on the run from creditors who stumbles on her secluded mansion and is persuaded to work on her “masterpiece,” and Larry Adams is Max Von Meyerling, the mysterious enabler who helps keep her fantasies alive.

Oct. 20

“Kentucky,” The Gift Theatre at Theater Wit (773-975-8150) through Nov. 16

Described by the New York Times as “what a naturalistic play might look like after several pitchers of juleps,” Leah Nanako Winkler’s combination coming-of-age story and dysfunctional family dramedy focuses on Hiro (Emjoy Gavino), a thirtyish New York marketing executive with substance-abuse issues who decides to return to her abusive home in Kentucky to try to stop the wedding of her 22-year-old sister, a born-again Christian. There’s a talking cat, too.