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Best Theater Productions of 2014

This has been a year of impressive artistic productivity, as well as a time of personal and professional loss.

Particularly noteworthy as a trend was a slew of outstanding productions of musicals (many with huge casts) by the city’s smaller theaters, including Bailiwick Chicago Theatre (a triple header with “The Wild Party,” “Carrie” and “Dessa Rose”); Black Ensemble Theatre (with “The Marvelous Marvelettes” and “At Last: A Tribute to Etta James”); Porchlight Music Theatre (“Sweeney Todd” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'”); Griffin Theatre (“Titanic”); Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (“A Musical Tribute to The Andrews Sisters” and “Always…Patsy Cline”); the Mercury Theater (“Avenue Q”), and Kokandy Productions (“Assassins”).

At the same time, the fierce competition among the Marriott Theatre, Drury Lane Theatre and Aurora’s Paramount Theatre has driven all three of these big houses to ever greater heights. In fact, the shows at all these venues are generally so superior to most of the touring productions booked by Broadway in Chicago (the sensational “Newsies” being a huge exception) that you wish some of them would just be transferred downtown.

Meanwhile, several companies will not make it into 2015. After a formidable 30-year-life, Evanston’s Next Theatre has shut its doors, while the inventive Theatre Seven of Chicago has decided to disband. But there is good news, too, including the rebirth of Onyx Theatre, as well as the groundbreaking for Writers Theatre’s new home, and the plans (in various stages) for new homes for the Chicago Children’s Theatre, TimeLine Theatre and Griffin Theatre.

At Steppenwolf, big changes at the top were announced, with Broadway-connected Anna D. Shapiro soon to take over from Martha Lavey as artistic director, and a major expansion of the company’s physical plant planned. At Redmoon, the much-hyped Chicago Fire Spectacle on the Chicago River never ignited, but the company, with its vast reserves of talent and energy, is forging ahead.

What follows is a list of 10 outstanding shows from 2014. Easily a good 30 shows qualified for this list but had to be brutally excised. Here (in addition to the musicals named above) are the survivors, in alphabetical order:

“All Our Tragic” (The Hypocrites): Adapter/director Sean Graney’s monumentally ambitious effort to stage all the existing Greek tragedies in one great, impressively unified, daylong marathon was superbly executed by a gifted, tireless ensemble and an ingenious team of designers. The miracle of it was that audiences were hungry to see it — so hungry, in fact, that the production is set to return to Chicago in the summer of 2015.

“Both Your Houses” (Remy Bumppo Theatre): At the very moment that real-life U.S. politicians were making themselves major irritants, this revival of a long-neglected 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning political satire by Maxwell Anderson reminded us that it has always been thus. The Congressional machinations here were delicious, and deliciously played by a large cast. “The Clean House,” the slyly beautiful Sara Ruhl play now running at Remy Bumppo, is in a dead heat for this spot.

“Churchill” (SoloChicago at the Greenhouse Theater Center): Talk about launching a new project with a bang. Actor Ron Keaton set up a company designed to showcase solo performances, and he inaugurated it with his own terrific performance as the British Prime Minister so crucial to the Allies’ triumph in World War II.

“The Dance of Death” (Writers Theatre): In Writers’ priceless back-of-a-bookstore space, director Henry Wishcamper and his cast of three drew blood from a marital match made in Hell, with Larry Yando’s demented dance nothing short of unforgettable.

“In the Garden: A Darwinian Love Story” (Lookingglass Theatre): This first play by Sara Gmitter was a lovely, beautifully played and designed meditation on evolution and faith that also managed to find a deeply thoughtful middle ground in what might well have been a shrill, one-sided argument.

“The King and I” (Marriott Theatre): For a great musical you “gotta have a book,” and this Rodgers and Hammerstein gem has one of the best and most enduring. Director Nick Bowling (whose other triumphs this year included enthralling productions of “Danny Casolaro Died for You” and “The Normal Heart” for TimeLine Theatre), gathered a flawless cast to bring it all to vivid life.

“The Last Ship” (Bank of America Theatre): Sting’s first musical is having difficulty navigating the rough waters of Broadway, but the show, which debuted in Chicago, has an absolutely stunning score and handsome staging. It might not be fully appreciated now, but you can bet some enterprising Chicago storefront will grab hold of it in the coming years and take full command.

“Look Back in Anger” (Redtwist Theatre): This tiny storefront production of the John Osborne classic that revolutionized English theater in the 1950s featured stunning performances (most notably one by Joseph Wiens) under the exceptional direction of Jonathan Berry.

“Men Should Weep” (Griffin Theatre): I had never heard of Scottish playwright Ena Lamont Stewart’s 1947 classic about an impoverished neighborhood in Glasgow. But now, thanks to director Robin Witt’s searing production, and Lori Myers’ leading performance, I will never forget it.

“The Normal Heart” (TimeLine Theatre): Under Nick Bowling’s direction, this Larry Kramer play, which grew directly out of the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York, seemed newly minted, with a stellar cast led by David Cromer, Mary Beth Fischer and Marc Grapey.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

In a city that produces hundreds of shows each year, it is all but impossible to choose “the 10 best.” I did so above (cheating with my mention of a slew of terrific musicals produced by the city’s smaller theaters), but here is the full list of worthy contenders. It was quite a year on Chicago stages.

“Women at War” (Rivendell Theatre): Megan Carney’s searing, multifaceted look at women in the U.S. armed services today was stunningly realized on all levels.

“Luna Gale” (Goodman Theatre): While I haven’t always championed Rebecca Gilman ‘s plays, this one, about a complex child custody suit, is at once full of great arguments and pitch black humor. Robert Falls’ production featured excellent actors, a number of whom are now reprising their roles at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group. As in all such stories, you are left with the sense that the child is going to have a very rough life.

“The Playboy of the Western World” (Raven Theatre): A knockout revival of this Irish classic by J.M. Synge tapped into both the humor and desperation of the play.

“Seven Guitars” (Court Theatre): A stellar revisiting of the August Wilson classic.

“Danny Casolaro Died for You” (a zesty political thriller) and “My Name is Asher Lev” (a moving exploration of family, religion and art), both at TimeLine Theatre.

“Lost in Yonkers,” “The Commons of Pensacola” and “The Mousetrap,” three very different plays, all vividly produced at Northlight Theatre.

“Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England” (Theater Wit): A hilarious and moving play by Madeleine George about the loss of a natural history museum and the loss of life.

“The Testament of Mary” (Victory Gardens Theatre): Colm Toibin’s provocative one-woman show, which finds Jesus’ mother in her later years, and featured a searing turn by Linda Reiter.

“Golden Boy” (Griffin Theatre): A revival of a Clifford Odets classic noteworthy for its deft blend of immediacy and period flavor.

“Tristan & Yseult” (Kneehigh at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater): This bravura production from England explored an ancient love story with immense wit, hip music and great physical daring.

“Ruined” and “Intimate Apparel” (Eclipse Theatre): In a season devoted to the work of Lynn Nottage, these two plays were memorably revived.

“Charles Ives Take Me Home” (Strawdog Theatre): Jessica Dickey’s small but exquisite play about a father-daughter relationship was superbly realized.

“Mill Fire” (Shattered Globe Theatre): Sally Nemeth’s play about an industrial accident, and the rage and pain it left behind, was expertly rendered.

“The Jungle” (Oracle Theatre): At this free-admission theater, butcher’s paper and blood, plus a fine ensemble, made this a winning adaptation of the Upton Sinclair classic about immigrant life in Chicago.

“Isaac’s Eye” (Writers Theatre) and “Death Tax” (Lookingglass Theatre): Two sharply staged plays by Lucas Hnath introduced audiences to a most intriguing young playwright.

“Principal Principle” (Stage Left Theatre): In a season that featured several plays about our current school crisis, this one, by Joe Zarrow, was the standout in its exploration of the pressures on teachers.

“Amadeus” (BoHo Theatre): A first-rate revival of this tricky, delicious play.

“Plainsong” (Signal Ensemble): Eric Schmiedl’s adaptation of Kent Haruf’s novel about a Colorado town where many lives were not quite on track was lovely — poignant and funny, and expertly played.

“Arguendo” (Elevator Repair Service at the Museum of Contemporary Art): This ingenious New York ensemble explored matters of censorship and decency while also revealing the more lunatic aspects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s arguments.

“Buyer and Cellar” (Broadway Playhouse): This Off Broadway transplant starring Michael Urie as Barbra Streisand’s “basement boutique salesman,” was one of the season’s best guilty pleasures.

“The Night Alive” (Steppenwolf Theatre): This Conor McPherson play about the lost lives of men was stunningly acted and directed.

“Rest” (Victory Gardens Theatre): Samuel D. Hunter’s play about a senior living facility in distress was spot-on in its absurd truths.

“Brigadoon” (Goodman Theatre): A lush, gorgeously sung and danced revival of the Lerner and Loewe musical.

“The Humans” and “Sons of the Prophet” (American Theater Company): Two dysfunctional family plays by Stephen Karam, both ideally mounted.

“Young Frankenstein” (Drury Lane Theatre): The Mel Brooks musical with performances more delicious than those on Broadway.

“Smokefall” (Goodman) and “Lookingglass Alice” (Lookingglass Theatre) — two superb revivals.