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Chicago's Theater Season Off to a Strong Start

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Chicago's fall theater season opened over the past few weeks with a flurry of major opening nights that might make you feel the way Tribune critic Charles Collins did back in 1936. I happened the other day across this quote from Collins, who had just seen several plays on Chicago stages: "I come up from under the heavy wave of first nights ... blinking my eyes and shaking stars out of my hair. This has been a surfeit of pleasures akin to a debauch..."

Let's not go quite that far. Is the current theater season so delightful that you'd call it a "debauch"? Not exactly -- but a few excellent productions of top-notch scripts are on the city's stages.

The best of the bunch is playwright Bruce Norris' 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, CLYBOURNE PARK, which Amy Morton is directing at Steppenwolf Theatre. It's curious that this drama, which has such a strong Chicago theme running through it, debuted in New York instead of Chicago, where Steppenwolf has premiered most of Norris' previous plays; it feels like the play has arrived in its true home. If you've read anything about Clybourne Park, you probably know it's about racial change in Chicago neighborhoods. The first act happens in 1959, showing the white family moving out of the home where the black characters from an earlier play, Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun, are about to move in. White flight happens in between the two acts. After intermission, it's 2009, and whites are moving back into the newly gentrifying neighborhood. All of this may sound rather schematic, but Norris goes beyond than this superficial framework with his usual dark, lacerating sensibility and observational powers. The cast is terrific, no one more so than John Judd in Act 1, as he builds from subdued quiet to emotional, goose-bump-raising outbursts. A subplot about the deceased son of the 1950s homeowners gives Clybourne Park a haunting, tragic depth.

Sarah Ruhl's IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY, directed by Sandy Shinner at Victory Gardens Theater, is a wise and witty dramatization of the Victorian Era's confusion and ignorance over female sexuality. If you haven't read much about the actual history of this topic, you may be surprised and even disbelieving of the facts -- but Ruhl's script is not far from the truth. You do wonder: Could these people have been so blithely unaware of their own bodies? But Ruhl and Victory Garden's wonderful cast breathe life into these characters, persuasively showing people grasping for the truth through the fog of Victorian moral codes. (Victory Gardens' production ends Oct. 9, so sorry, you may already be too late if you haven't seen it.)

John Logan's RED, directed by Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre, is an impressive two-man drama about art. The two men are famed abstract artist Mark Rothko and a more-or-less-anonymous assistant who's working in his studio. The dialogue is mostly argument and speech-making, but that's not the problem one might imagine. It's believable that Rothko was the sort of self-important man who would spend his time making grand statements about his art. And as played by Edward Gero with glaring intensity, Rothko almost makes you believe what he is saying in the first half of the play. And then his gradually more assertive assistant (played by Patrick Andrews) is equally persuasive as he tears down Rothko's pretense in the play's second half. The result is a fine debate about art and commerce, with a strong emotional undercurrent. The meticulous set, a re-creation of Rothko's studio, becomes the canvas for a breathtaking final moment of light and darkness.

Tom Stoppard's THE REAL THING, directed by Michael Halberstam at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, is considerably funnier on the stage than it is on the page. Of course, that's true of many scripts, but in this one, actor Sean Fortunato is particularly effective at bringing out the wit of his character, a playwright with romantic entanglements and some difficulties dealing with real-life people as opposed to the characters he creates in his scripts. Carrie Coon and the rest of the cast are in top form, as well. As it keeps jumping ahead in time, Stoppard's play takes some puzzling to figure out; it may be a little too much of a puzzle. But ultimately this is a rewarding production of a thoughtful play on the intersections between art and real-life love.

THE GREAT FIRE, written and directed by John Musial at Lookingglass Theatre, is a misfire, alas. It's too jokey by half as it recounts the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, with deliberately anachronistic references to Rahm Emanuel, TIF districts and fire department radios distracting from the more authentic historical moments. Lookingglass makes its usual effective use of small props to convey big spectacle, and the show is diverting enough, but overall it feels like a squandered chance to tell the real story.

MOBY-DICK, conceived and directed by Blake Montgomery at the Building Stage, is a fresh and exciting take on that familiar classic American novel by Herman Melville. The roles of Ahab, Starbuck, "Ishmael" and other crew members are constantly juggled back and forth by three male and three female cast members. Whoever's wearing a big black seafaring coat at any given moment is Ahab. But then, multiple coats appear ... are they all Ahab? By refusing to assign each character to a single actor, this production sacrifices some of the emotional depth that might have resulted from more focused performances. However, the clever gambit is successful in another way, heightening the feeling of obsession, which is so central to this story of a mad sea captain hell-bent on killing a white whale. Driven forward by Kevin O'Donnell's sensational percussion, Moby-Dick unfolds on a set that looks like a college classroom merged with a whaling ship. The play itself is a similar combination of smart lecture with fun adventure.