Fall preview 2014: Best bets for Chicago stages this season

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Deanna Dunagan in “Death Tax” | PHOTO BY SEAN WILLIAMS

The inhabitants of that ever-expanding universe widely known as “the Chicago theater community” still like to think of themselves as young pioneers. And to be sure, newbies arrive and set up shop here on a regular basis. But the truth is, this community has amassed a long as well as distinguished history.

Just consider a few of the anniversaries this year: The Goodman Theatre turns 90; Court Theatre turns 70; Northlight Theatre turns 40; Seanachai (just renamed as Irish Theatre Chicago), turns 20.

So as the fall 2014 season begins, let’s hum that Stephen Sondheim song, “I’m Still Here,” and cheer the new arrivals, too. The following is just a hint of what is in store here for ever-adventurous audiences of all ages:

The World of Extreme Happiness

Sept. 13-Oct. 12 at the Goodman Theatre

Frances Ya-Chou Cowhig’s play, directed by Eric Ting, looks at the phenomenon of modern China by homing in on the story of Sunny, a girl born in rural China, and left to die by her parents, who still hold to the notion that a son is most valuable. Sunny survives, and eventually heads to a city where she works at a low-paying factory job, but her attempts to find success in China’s era of radical economic transformation has dire consequences that drive her to question the system she has worked so hard to master. Visit Goodmantheatre.org.

Native Son

Sept. 11-Oct. 12 at Court Theatre, in a co-production with American Blues Theater

Nambi E. Kelley, the gifted actress-writer who has adapted Richard Wright’s landmark 1940 novel for the stage, has said the book’s central character, Bigger Thomas — a young black man who lived in extreme poverty on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s — has been in her heart “since I met him when I was eight years old… [and] I felt for him, loved him, in spite of the fact he was a murderer.” The production of this tale of a man inextricably linked to his environment will be directed by Seret Scott, and is bound to generate a whole new round of discussion. Visit courttheatre.org.

The Commons of Pensacola

Sept. 12-Oct. 19 at Northlight Theatre

Amanda Peet is best known as the actress who has appeared in countless movies and television series. But she recently made her playwriting debut with this play (Blythe Danner and Sarah Jessica Parker starred in the New York production), about a woman who finds herself “in exile” in a Florida condo after the scandal of a Bernie Madoff-like husband has brought an end to her posh life. A Thanksgiving dinner visit by her daughter, Becca, along with Becca’s filmmaker boyfriend and rebellious niece, proves to be less than an ideal holiday repast. Robin Witt (who just did such a brilliant job with Griffin Theatre’s “Men Should Weep”), will direct. Visit northlight.org.

The Night Alive

Sept. 18-Nov. 16 at Steppenwolf Theatre

The widely produced Irish playwright Conor McPherson has carved a deep place in the hearts of Chicago audiences with such haunted dramas as “The Weir,” “Shining City” and “The Seafarer.” Here he considers how the kindness of strangers comes with complications as Tommy — estranged from his family, crashing at his uncle’s ramshackle house in Dublin, and plotting get-rich-quick schemes with his pal — impulsively defends a destitute woman against a violent attack. Henry Wishcamper (who did such a fine job with McPherson’s “Port Authority” at Writers Theatre last season), will direct a cast that includes Francis Guinan and Tim Hopper. Visit steppenwolf.org.

Death Tax

Sept. 2-Oct. 12 at Lookingglass Theatre

Playwright Lucas Hnath, 34, will have two of his plays on Chicago stages this fall. This “darkly comic play about death and taxes” is set in December 2010, as the ailing Maxine thinks her daughter is paying her nurse “to gently nudge her into the grave before the new year” in order to avoid hefty estate taxes that take effect on January 1. Maxine offers the nurse a portion of her sizable estate on the condition that she assures her survival until the first. Things do not go according to plan. Heidi Stillman will direct a cast that includes Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan (“August: Osage County”) and others. Visit lookingglasstheatre.org. (Note: Another Hnath play, “Isaac’s Eye,” is now in previews at Writers’ Theatre, where it runs through Dec. 7 at the Books on Vernon space that will be the company’s full-time home this season while its new permanent home is being built nearby. In this hip conjuring of the world of a young Isaac Newton, Hnath imagines his meeting with Robert Hooke, the most famous and powerful scientist in Britain, and the resulting battle of intellects and egos. Visit writerstheatre.org.)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Oct. 3 – Nov. 9 at Porchlight Theatre

Argue if you must about whether this is Stephen Sondheim’s most dazzling score (it’s a true beauty, and fiendishly difficult), but you cannot deny this delicious show is the source of “the worst pies in London.” Michael Weber will direct, Doug Peck is the music director, and the cast will be led by David Girolmo as Sweeney Todd and Rebecca Finnegan as Mrs. Lovett. Get a shave in advance. Visit porchlightmusictheatre.org.

At Last: A Tribute to Etta James

Sept. 27-Dec. 28 at the Black Ensemble Theatre

If you missed this musical created by Jackie Taylor, and first produced at the Black Ensemble in 2005, now is the time to catch it. Or just catch it again. Not only does the show explore the many faces of Etta James (using multiple performers), but it features a slew of her biggest hits. James died in 2012, but she lives on in such songs as “Tell Mama,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and that title anthem. Visit blackensembletheater.org.

Titanic

Oct. 18-Dec. 7 in a Griffin Theatre production at Theater Wit

Rewritten and re-imagined, with all new orchestrations, this Broadway musical by Maury Yeston (whose Chicago staging marks its first major U.S. production in this more intimate form), tells the story of the “unsinkable” ship’s maiden voyage, with direction by Scott Weinstein and musical direction by Elizabeth Doran. Visit griffintheatre.com.

A Kurt Weill Cabaret

Sept. 19-Oct. 19 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

Directed by Fred Anzevino, with arrangements and musical direction by Jeremy Ramey, this revue celebrates the incomparable songbook of Weimar-era German composer Kurt Weill, featuring songs from “Threepenny Opera,” “One Touch of Venus,” “Lost in the Stars” and the Weill/Brecht “Mahagonny Songspeil.” Get ready for a little touch of Berlin decadence. Visit theo-u.com.

Amazing Grace

Oct. 9-Nov. 2 at the Bank of America Theatre

This pre-Broadway world premiere musical by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron is based on the true story behind one of the world’s most beloved songs. A continent-spanning saga of treachery, rebellion and redemption, it follows the transformation of John Newton, a young British slave trader, whose profound moment of self-reckoning inspires a blazing anthem of hope. Visit broadwayinchicago.com.

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