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These Chicago plays should be Pulitzer contenders

Written by
Kris Vire

I was puzzled yesterday reading this article handicapping the likely candidates for this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, set to be announced two weeks from today. The plays tipped by Playbill's survey of "various theatre critics and professionals" are surely in the running, based on the acclaim garnered by their 2014 premieres in New York: Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon, Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men.

What confused me was the discussion of another Jacobs-Jenkins work, Appropriate, as a contender. Appropriate is a terrific play, smartly subverting the Family Secrets formula. But the Pulitzer is meant for a play produced in 2014; I saw Appropriate not once but twice in 2013, first at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival and later at Victory Gardens here in Chicago. Shouldn't it have been eligible last year? I wondered aloud on Twitter.

My esteemed colleague Peter Marks, the drama critic for The Washington Post and a past chair of the Pulitzer drama jury, responded that it's up to playwrights when to enter their work, within the first few productions. Perhaps Jacobs-Jenkins submitted both of his plays this year. Or perhaps the New York–centric Playbill and its survey respondents saw Appropriate's New York debut last February and never considered whether the play had a prior existence.

It's rare for a play to be awarded the Pulitzer without having been produced in New York in the year of eligibility—but it is possible. Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle (1992), Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics (2003) and Quiara Alegría Hudes's Water by the Spoonful (2012) each netted the award without a New York production. With that in mind—and keeping in mind that a play "need not be formally submitted in order to be considered by the Drama Jury" [PDF link]—I'd like to draw the jury's attention to a few Chicago-born plays of 2014 that should be on their radar.

Pulitzer's preference for a play that's "preferably original in its source and dealing with American life" rules out my top play of the year, Sean Graney's epic adaptation All Our Tragic. But the jury should take a hard look at my number two, Luna Gale. Rebecca Gilman's slippery, compelling study of broken bureaucracy, class, religion and the ethics of social work was widely acclaimed as one of the best new plays of the year in both Chicago and Los Angeles, where the Goodman Theatre's production transferred for a presentation by Center Theatre Group. Gilman, a Pulitzer finalist in 2002 for The Glory of Living, is at the top of her game here.

Stephen Karam's The Humans, seen last fall at American Theater Company, is a sharply observed family drama, set at a Thanksgiving dinner but with a dark, anxious undercurrent. Karam, too, is a past Pulitzer finalist, for Sons of the Prophet in 2012; his latest deserves a look. Caitlin Parrish brought a more explicit terror to the family drama in The Downpour, staged by Route 66 Theatre Company; the American Theatre Critics Association just named Parrish's work a finalist for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, so it's got some awards momentum already. And Exit Strategy, rising playwright Ike Holter's righteous, raucous portrait of frustrated faculty at a Chicago Public Schools high school facing closure, was perhaps a bit rough around the edges, but its passion and currency were undeniable. 

And as long as we're considering plays that were seen in Chicago in 2013, let's not forget Smokefall, Noah Haidle's fanciful, haunting meditation on family's unstinting hold on us. The Goodman remounted its 2013 production last fall, shifting it to the larger Albert Theatre; that ought to give the Pulitzer jury plenty of wiggle room to keep it on the docket.

The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced April 20.

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