#1. Sunset Baby – Timeline Theater
If you have never heard Nina Simone sing “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood,” you need to click here. Dominique Morisseau’s masterpiece script embodies the pain and desperation of Simone’s song (which serves as a backdrop). The struggles Nina (AnJi White), Kenyatta (Phillip Edward Van Lear), and Damon (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) face in escaping crime are all the more heartbreaking with the realization that not all three will find the happiness they seek. Each is a soul whose intentions are… if not “good,” at least essential for survival. A stellar script (second in recent memory only to Bruce Norris’s The Whale) thrives with three award-worthy performances and expert direction from Ron OJ Parson.
#2. The Flick – Steppenwolf Theater
What do employees at a run-down movie theater talk about as they sweep popcorn? Hopes and disappointments. Fear of the future. Great films versus good films. The Flick is like having a late-night conversation with an old friend—time is forgotten as the hours float away. Great performances by Danny McCarthy, Caroline Nuff, and Travis Turner created empathy for the characters. Credit scenic designer Jack Magaw for figuring out how to replace the popcorn on the floor during those one-second blackouts.
#3. Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth – Lookingglass Theater
A couple, deeply in love with each other, are tasked with saving classic children’s literature when the bad wolf mysteriously disappears from all of his tales. The resulting story (the first script from actor Doug Hara) blends fantasy, science fiction, romance, and detective genres into a breathtaking spectacle performed by just two actors (Samuel Taylor and Lindsey Noel Whiting) and a hand full of puppets. Mr. and Mrs. Pennyworth continues through February 19.
#4. Merchant of Venice – Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Shylock achieves perfection. He is greedy, vengeful, and even violent to his daughter Jessica (played by Pryce’s real-life daughter Phoebe), yet his fall exemplifies pain akin with losing a pound of flesh. Director Jonathan Munby’s colorful and musical interpretation transported from London’s Globe Theater was a joy to watch on Chicago’s always spectacular Courtyard Theater stage.
#5. Hand to God – Victory Gardens Theater
A troubled teen (Alex Weisman) finds that his hand puppet Tyrone—a prop he uses in a Christian church group—has been possessed by the devil. Or maybe Tyrone is Jason’s means for expressing his stunted feelings? Either way, the hilarious dialogue propels this emotional comedy, which features highlights in Tyrone’s profanity-filled opening and closing speeches. Additionally, Janelle Snow as the adult Margery and Curtis Edward Jackson as the teenage bully Timothy deliver one of the most hilarious pre-sex scenes ever written.
#6. Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 – Goodman Theater
Rebecca Gilman’s long-standing collaboration with the Goodman Theater continues with this comedy-drama about a family in America’s heartland. Each of the six characters is intertwined with our nation’s shift from family-owned businesses to impersonal corporations. Gilman is at her best with this first part of a trilogy.
#7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Oriental Theater
Christopher’s quest to make sense of a chaotic world—complete with a murdered dog and unopened letters from a mother he thought was dead—drives this very suspenseful and inspiring play. Outstanding performances and inventive staging further emphasize why Curious Incident swept so many awards in both London and New York.
#8. Between Riverside and Crazy – Steppenwolf Theater
“Nah, Kemosabe, this is poker—and see, I play a little too,” Pops (Eamonn Walker) says to Lieutenant Caro (Tim Hopper), who needs to convince Pops to sign a settlement with the city of New York. Tensions begin high in this Pulitzer Prize winner from Stephen Adly Guirgis and they never let up as Pops nears the resolution of his eight-year struggle following a wrongful police shooting.
#9. King Charles III – Chicago Shakespeare Theater
No doubt about it, this was an exceptional year for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (in addition to #4 Merchant of Venice, Othello was just as deserving for a spot on the list). Mike Bartlett’s script is brilliant on all levels ranging from modern Shakespeare history play to satirical exploration of the monarchy’s role in England. To note one exciting moment, Charles (Robert Bathurst) springs his surprise power play at the end of Act I, creating a wallop worthy of Shakespeare’s greatest kings. King Charles III continues through January 15.
#10. In the Time of the Butterflies – Teatro Vista
Playwright Caridad Svich took on a great challenge in adapting Julia Álvarez’s complex, point-of-view shifting novel about four sisters joining the resistance against Dominican dictator General Trujillo. The result was a fast-paced, suspenseful drama honoring those who risk everything to fight against tyranny.
NOTE: Unfortunately, time constraints mean that I cannot write about every show that I see. I did want to mention one last show, which I enjoyed immensely with a large group of co-workers. Spymonkey’s Complete Deaths (which dramatizes every death written by Shakespeare into one show) did not make the top 10 list, but it had by far the year’s best funeral for a housefly.