Chicago Theater Catch-up: Four of Lesser Nobility and One Big Fabulous Prince

We’ve seen so much theater lately that it isn’t possible to devote a full post to each production.  So here’s the abbreviated scoop.

C. S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert written by Max McLean, starring Max McLean and produced by Fellowship for Performing Arts – This one-man show, taken from the writings of Lewis, narrates his intellectual struggle with spiritually, belief in God and organized religion.  Nominally raised as an Episcopalian, he became a professed atheist.  When teaching at Oxford (still in his early 20’s) his companions in the English Department were some of the well-known intellectual Catholics, including J.R. Tolkien.  Through his own exploration, he rationalizes that the life of a man cannot be completely without value or purpose, becomes a deist, then a Catholic.  And there it ends.  McLean has made a career of crafting the words of Lewis into stage productions.  We enjoyed The Screwtape Letters several years ago.  A worthy production, a minor prince.

Douglass created by American Vicarious and directed by Christopher McElroen – I was startled when the title character walked onto the stage and was an African-American.  I thought this was a play about Stephen A. Douglas, the politician and debater who espoused the states’ rights and slavery.  No, this was Frederick Douglass, former slave who became a unique emancipator prior to the Civil War.  This is a well-told docudrama that shows the narrow path Douglass chose between radical Blacks, who advocated a return to Africa, radical Whites, who favored full emancipation, but never thought through the results, opportunists who were eager to exploit educated Blacks for nefarious purposes and those few both black and white who, like Douglass, favored a slow approach to change.  A worthy production, but not a prince.

Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Sarah Moeller, produced by Eclipse Theatre Company, written in 2002 – This is our third Guirgis play and his earliest for us.  It’s a series of vignettes, conversations (usually angry ones) with two or three of the show’s 12 characters.  It reminded me instantly of Balm in Gilead by Lanford Wilson, except that in Blam, everyone is talking at once and the featured conversation is spotlighted and all other conversations tone down.  In Our Lady, the conversations are sequential, but because of the excellent set combining a bar, a funeral parlor and a confessional, most of the actors are able to remain present on the stage, but not engaged.  Excellent acting, even though the play itself lacks a dramatic arc.  A prince.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, produced by The Dead Writer’s Collective – who present the works of dead writers exactly as they were produced during the writer’s life.  And this production clocked in at almost three delightful hours.  All the characters were played in “earnest”, no hamming.  The ensemble was all matched in diligence and style.  Enhancing it were stunning costumes and a tiny set that appeared to be a pop-up style Victorian greeting card.  Just as in the days of Oscar, this was a prince. 

Company, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, produced by The Writer’s Theater of Glencoe and directed by William Brown, was splendid.  We’ve always loved this musical, chock full of memorable songs and story lines.  But this production was the best ever.  For the first time, I felt this was homage to marriage, not a sad story of a man who can’t find a mate.  Brown adapted the book, originally produced in 1970, so it did not feel dated.  The changes were flawless and only enhanced the emotional impact.  The only drawback was the performers were miked – which would not have been a problem except the sound engineer was asleep.  When the big solo numbers came, the sound was way too loud, uncomfortably so.  Ah well, those with low hearing were grateful.  This show was a Grand Prince!