The best plays of 2015
This gussied-up Tempest might have sounded like a gimmick, laden with vaudeville-style magic tricks by Teller (of Penn &), choreography by pretzel-style movement troupe Pilobolus, and soundtracked with Tom Waits tunes. But the magic was real: Teller and his fellow adapter-director Aaron Posner used their illusions to enhance, not obfuscate. And Larry Yando's Prospero, garbed in a weatherbeaten showman's tux, conjured deeply moving emotional truths.
Anne Washburn's slyly smart play with music posits a post-apocalyptic world in which the plot of a classic Simpsons episode maybe becomes, over generations, a society's guiding myth. The 2012 work made its Chicago debut in a pitch-perfect Theater Wit staging, with each of Washburn's three acts richly rendered by director Jeremy Wechsler, a fine young cast and a crack design team. Mr. Burns crackled with electric inventiveness, no d'ohs about it.
The Gift Theatre was given the gift of premiering a new play by 75-year-old Tony winner David Rabe, and the company more than did justice to this three-hour meditation on mental healthcare. In a kind of Our Town of psychotherapy, therapist Robert (John Gawlik) and his colleague Evangeline (Lynda Newton) treat a wide array of patients while occasionally betraying their impatience. With 15 characters going through troubles both traumatic and trifling, it was almost too much to take. But that may be Rabe's point: Heroic professionals like these endure the unimaginable.
Samuel D. Hunter's quietly heartbreaking portrait of a dying chain restaurant in a dying town, seen here in a stunningly detailed Griffin Theatre production directed by Jonathan Berry (who helmed an equally superb Balm in Gilead earlier this year), captured the kind of devastating loneliness that can be amplified, rather than assuaged, by the presence of family. As a restaurant manager desperately trying to keep his store afloat and his feelings tamped down, Michael McKeogh gave one of the year's most nuanced performances.
Inspired by the real-life work of Gloria Allen at the Center on Halsted, Philip Dawkins's portrait of trans teacher Mama Darleena (the regal Dexter Zollicoffer) and her etiquette class filled with troubled LGBT pupils depicted a multiplicity of perspectives without ever feeling preachy. Skokie's Northlight Theatre and director BJ Jones smartly brought this production into the city, where the audience that needed it could find it. Charm did just like Miss Darleena: Educated with empathy.
This delightful Canadian surprise, imported by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is awfully high concept. By which we mean, writers Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell could very well have been high when they came up with it. But the story of six Saskatchewan teens, killed in an accident on the titular roller coaster, revealing their deepest hopes and dreams to determine which one gets to return to the living was as affecting as it was outré. The smashing score of pop pastiche numbers, under the musical direction of the impeccable Doug Peck, was filled with eccentric glee. Like an unforeseen squall, Cyclone blew us away.