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Fall Arts Preview 2015: Theater

[UPDATE: Actress Felicia P. Fields has withdrawn from the Court Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” due to health reasons and will be replaced by Jacqueline Williams.]

The fall theater season arrives full of promise, galloping in on the heels of a year of great loss (the death, by accident and illness, of many artists), a major leadership change (as Anna D. Shapiro assumes the artistic directorship of Steppenwolf Theatre), real estate “evictions” (resulting from the gentrification of a block housing three fringe theaters), and, to top it all off, a serious late summer fire at the Second City.

With about 200 companies now in operation here, no list of 10 shows can possibly suggest the range of work to arrive on the city’s stages in the next few months. This is only a small sampler, and by no means a judgment:

“East of Eden” (Sept. 17 – Nov. 15 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted): The company is kicking off its 40th anniversary with Frank Galati’s world premiere adaptation of the John Steinbeck family epic, “East of Eden,” directed by founding member Terry Kinney. Galati and Kinney, famously paired in 1988 for a Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” are again spinning an almost biblical saga. Set in California’s Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s story focuses on Adam Trask, a man determined to make a fresh start as he settles on a beautiful farm with the wife he adores, and their twins. But Eden this is not, as family history, sibling rivalry, betrayal and the impending danger of World War I all conspire to upend his dreams. (www.steppenwolf.org)

“Treasure Island” (Oct. 7, 2015 – Jan 17, 2016 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan): Following the gargantuan success of its adaptation of “Moby Dick,” Lookingglass and adapter-director Mary Zimmerman (who has assembled a cast of 12 men), are teaming up to bring to life Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of Jim Hawkins, the English lad who sets out on a search for buried treasure and becomes entangled with a group of dastardly pirates, and the ship’s cook, “Long John” Silver. (www.lookingglasstheatre.org)

“The Tempest” (through Nov. 8 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand): Another “island” tale — this one in the form of Shakespeare’s late career play about a duke in exile with magical powers, and the coming of age of his innocent daughter. There is bound to be a high level of enchantment here thanks to the combined talents of co-directors Aaron Posner (author of “Stupid F…ing Bird”) and Teller (of the uncanny magic duo, Penn & Teller), plus songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan; choreography courtesy of Pilobolus; and shape-shifting actor Larry Yando as Prospero. (www.chicagoshakes.com)

Eve Louise Balistreire and Larry Yando in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production of “The Tempest.” (Photo: Bill Burlingham)
Eve Louise Balistreire and Larry Yando in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production of “The Tempest.” (Photo: Bill Burlingham)

“Gem of the Ocean” (Through Oct. 10 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis): Director Ron OJ Parson has a special flair for August Wilson’s work. This play, the first installment in his 10-play 20th Century Cycle about African-American life, is set in Pittsburgh in 1904 and homes in on Aunt Ester, a fiery, 285-year-old matriarch. Ester welcomes into her home Solly Two Kings, a man born into slavery, and Citizen Barlow, a young man from Alabama searching for a new life and redemption, and leads a spiritual awakening to the City of Bones. (www.courttheatre.org)

“Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” (Dec. 1, 2015 – Feb. 21, 2016) at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph): Yes, Evanston-bred Jessie Mueller created the role in this musical about the beloved singer-songwriter, and won a Tony Award for her performance. But anyone who has seen her sister, Abby Mueller (starring in the national tour), on stage knows that she, too, has the glorious voice and the ability to make you “feel the Earth move.” With a book by Douglas McGrath and direction by Marc Bruni, the show is filled with a career-spanning collection of terrific songs written by Gerry Goffin/Carole King, Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil, and others. (www.BroadwayInChicago.com)

“Marjorie Prime” (Oct. 21, 2015 – Feb. 21, 2016 at Writers Theatre, Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe): The company’s grand new theater is set to open in early 2016. Meanwhile, this play by Jordan Harrison will take full advantage of the intimate space where Writers Theatre began. The title character is an 86-year-old woman (played by Mary Ann Thebus), whose memory may be fading. Enter Walter (Erik Hellman), a mysterious and charming young visitor programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her own past. (www.writerstheatre.org)

“Oklahoma” (Sept. 16 – Oct. 18 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena, Aurora): The Paramount received 16 Jeff Award nominations for three different productions from last season. Enough said. This is musical theater produced on an operatic scale. Jim Corti is directing this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic — a show at once dark, exhilarating and the best sort of “Americana.” (www.ParamountAurora.com)

“Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)” (Sept. 16 – Nov. 14 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark): Mark Stein’s play-with-music-and-dance is a satirical retelling of the true story of nine African-American teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women on a train in Alabama. Michael Menendian directs. Note: This show is not to be confused with the musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” which ran on Broadway in 2010. (www.raventheatre.com)

Abby Mueller will star in the national tour of “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical,” playing Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Nathan Johnson)
Abby Mueller will star in the national tour of “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical,” playing Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. (Photo: Nathan Johnson)

“The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence” (starts Sept. 17 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont): I still laugh thinking about Theater Wit’s 2013 production of Madeleine George’s “Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England.” In this brand new version of her 2014 Pulitzer Award finalist she gives us a time-hopping comic meditation on technology, love and communication over the last 150 years. (www.theaterwit.org)

“My Manana Comes” (Oct. 3 – Nov. 8 by Teatro Vista at the Victory Gardens Biograph Studio, 2433 N. Lincoln): Elizabeth Irwin’s comedy playfully exposes the travails of immigrant workers and their quest for the American dream. Set in the kitchen of an elegant New York restaurant, it offers a snapshot of the lives of four busboys who cling to dreams of life beyond their dingy back-of-house grind. (www.teatrovista.org)