There’s no question that 2016 was the year of the “big” theater in Chicago. After a few years of what some might regard as stagnation at some of Chicago’s most prominent theater institutions, nearly every one of them set out to confound that perception. Most of the plans that came to fruition at Chicago Shakespeare, Steppenwolf, Goodman, and the like in 2016 were well underway for some time, but the confluence of them all made for an incredible year. Yet, it was the smallest of the heavy-hitters that rose above the rest — Writers Theatre.
Writers began their 2016 midway through the run of Jordan Harrison’s MARJORIE PRIME, directed by Kimberly Senior, offering one last look at the Glencoe bookstore space. In his four-star review, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called all of the acting sensational, but particularly the legendary Mary Ann Thebus, saying “this is among my very favorites of all the work I’ve seen from this venerable actress over the years.”
In February, Writers opened its stunning $28 million new venue, an architectural marvel from Jeanne Gang. On the outside, it’s certainly the best-looking theater in the Chicago area, and on the inside it’s comfortable, social, and most importantly, as productions to come will demonstrate, perfectly serves Writers’ intimate and intellectual sensibilities.
The first production to officially open the new space was a pitch-perfect rendering of Stoppard’s ARCADIA, directed by Artistic Director Michael Halberstam with a gentle and exacting hand. Our Abigail Trabue called it the “quintessential Writers work.”
A collaboration with Second City followed, entitled DEATH OF A STREETCAR NAMED VIRGINIA WOOLF, a heady comedy that spoke directly to the Writers audience, smashing together some of the most overproduced classic plays into what Cara Winter called a “delightful, irreverent, Franken-parody—a raucous, gleeful, no-holds-barred send-up of an entire genre.”
The first musical in the new space, COMPANY, closed out the 15/16 season. We didn’t review, but Chris Jones gave it four stars, calling it “a formidable achievement, seemingly reached without compromising a word or a note in the original text or score.” Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal called it “a first-class revival. I doubt you’ll see a stronger, more sympathetic production … or one that moves you more deeply.”
September ushered in Writers’ 25th Anniversary season with JULIUS CAESAR, perhaps a mere 2 months before its time. The relevancy of this production could not have been pre-determined, but our Hilary Holbrook wrote of it “I have this visceral reaction when a politician I did not vote for is elected, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I am certain that the world will come to an end. The rivers will rise. Fire will reign down from the Heavens, and the plagues of Egypt will wreak havoc once more. The weight of disappointment can certainly feel as though the Gods are playing some cruel joke on us mere mortals, and the desire to “take back the reigns” on the current events in one’s life can be very strong. This is why Writers Theatre’s production of JULIUS CAESAR is so important. These days we can all use the reminder that the road to hell, even for the most honorable of men, is paved with good intentions.”
October brought Ron OJ Parsons’ sizzling revival of Eugene Lee’s EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS, of which Naima Dawson wrote: “Ron OJ Parson is a mastermind at manipulating the stage and stories in a way that forces the audience to become enthralled in the action of the story and its characters. EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS is a 90-minute roller-coaster ride that climbs its way to the top and when that first car drops it doesn’t stop until everything literally comes crashing down at full speed. Prepare yourself for the most intense ride of your life.”
On October 17th, Michael Halberstam, Writers’ artistic director for its entire history, received a special Jeff Award honoring his 25 years of service to the Chicago theater community. Halberstam, long a champion of individual artists, spoke in his jocular yet on-the-head style “As Melania Trump said the other day, ‘It takes a village.’ This award tonight is for the village.” calling theater “an act of anti-terrorism.”
And finally, a few days ago, Writers closed out the year with a collaboration with New York’s Pigpen Theatre called THE HUNTER AND THE BEAR. Tonika Todorova said it put true fear into her, and the highlight of her theatergoing year, saying colorfully: “Shadowy figures crawl on strewn canvases, fires blaze hotter in our minds than reality, and a deer made of felt and hands perks its ears as it knows the beginning of the truly darkest of nights. Tall hollowed trees lurk over like sentinels awaiting the doom that is undoubtedly already begun. This entire team of creators from direction to performance to design consists of the smartest and most innovative talent the theater world has to offer…quite simply to be the reason I love going to the theater.”
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect year. Indeed, each and every production PerformInk reviewed at Writers was a Critic’s Pick, but that doesn’t quite go far enough. As we compile our list of the best productions of 2016, it’s hard to decide which Writers shows to leave off. For that reason alone, Writers Theatre is our 2016 Company of the Year.