Year in Review — 2018’s Best Non-Musicals

#1. Indecent (Victory Garden)

indecent_victory gardens

The Chicago premier of Indecent was just as triumphant as the Broadway production (which I made a specific trip to New York to see in 2017). The play spans more than 30 years and travels to two continents in telling the story of a Yiddish theater troop performing the controversial play The God of Vengeance. One aspect that particularly stood out to me on this second viewing was the conviction held by every member of the troop that art (and theater in particular) must be continued even when society turns its back.

#2. Bigmouth (Chicago Shakespeare)

bigmouth 1

A Belgian named Valentijn Dhaenen performing culturally significant speeches in at least five different languages (those not in English had subtitles)—perhaps the only way to describe the power of Bigmouth is to compare it to an exceptional non-fiction text that helps us to understand the past and the present with new eyes and ears. Check out this two-minute clip for a smidgen of the awe that live audiences felt for Dhaenen’s unique talent.

#3 Southern Gothic (Windy City Playhouse)

sothern gothic

As the only show on this list still playing in an open run, make sure to step into this birthday party setting (complete with food and drinks) if you have not already. A truly immersive theater experience, you walk around the house as eight actors play out a dinner party in multiple rooms. A series of scandals fester just below the surface, and half the fun is not quite knowing if you are in the best room to catch the latest drama.

#4. Downstate (Steppenwolf)


Bruce Norris’s latest play to premier at Steppenwolf (where he is an ensemble member) is a look at the continuing lives of four men convicted of sex crimes against minors, who now live together in a group home in downstate Illinois. By focusing on perpetrators of arguably the most feared and loathed crime in America (maybe even beyond murder?), Norris raises questions about how much we as a society value redemption.

#5. Traitor (Red Orchid)

traitor_red orchid

Michael Shannon’s direction earned much of the publicity for this modernization of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. One of the joys of every production at Red Orchid is watching the cast and crew cram so much theater into such a small space. In Traitor, we were practically sitting at the kitchen table as Dr. Tom Stock (Guy Van Swearingen) fights against his politician sister (the always strong Kirsten Fitzgerald) and the entire town in revealing water contamination that threatens to destroy a depressed community’s chance for an economic turn-around.

#6. Red Velvet (Chicago Shakespeare)

red velvet

Dion Johnstone gifted Chicago audiences with an epic performance as Ira Aldridge, a British actor who had played Othello throughout Europe but never in his home country. On one hand, English audience were not willing to suspend disbelief in the case of a black man abusing his Desdemona. On the other hand, the crowds objections only fueled the fire of Aldridge’s performance—ultimately to the point of no return.

#7. Lettie (Victory Gardens)


Another outstanding production from Victory Gardens, Lettie featured Caroline Neff as a former drug addict trying to put her life together after a seven-year stint in prison. Playwright Boo Killebrew’s script challenges the audience to feel sympathy for Lettie even as her self-destructive behaviors leave her is a state of limbo—wanting desperately to bring stability to her relationship with her two kids but lacking the life skills necessary to pull herself out of a destructive cycle. (added bonus: like Traitor, Lettie also featured Kirsten Fitzgerald)

#8. Vietgone (Writer’s Theater)

vietgone_writers theater

Playwright Qui Nguyen defied genre classification by combining historical biography, cross-country motorcycling, kung fu, and rap, to explore his father’s journey from Vietnam to America. What has stayed with me is a powerful closing scene in which our protagonist, now an old man, scolds his son for seeing US involvement in Vietnam as a black-and-white disaster without consideration for the Vietnamese already fighting the Viet Cong, who were given some hope in the wake of mass civilian massacres.

#9. How I Learned to Drive (Artistic Home)

how i learned to drive_2018

Having recently discovered playwright Paula Vogel via Indecent, I was very interested in her 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner, which received an outstanding, small-scale production from the Artistic Home. Vogel’s script is a challenge, exploring a plot where a charismatic Uncle Peck (John Mossman) sexually abuses his niece Li’l Bit (Elizabeth Birnkrant) without simplifying Li’l Bit’s reactions at different points in her life.

#10. You for Me for You (Sideshow)

you for me for you

When two sisters take their change to escape from North Korea, one makes it out, and the other is left behind. Helen Joo Lee and Jin Park were exceptional as the sisters leading separate yet intertwined lives. Director Elly Green made good use of minimal scenery in presenting playwright Mia Chung’s fast-paced, abstract tear-jerker.

Honorable Mentions

2018 non-musicals collage

MacBeth (Chicago Shakespeare)
Small Mouth Sands (Red Orchid)
Guards at the Taj (Steppenwolf)
Father Comes Home from the Wars, parts 1, 2, and 3 (Goodman)
Frost/Nixon (Redtwist)

Year in Review — 2018’s Best Non-Musicals

3 thoughts on “Year in Review — 2018’s Best Non-Musicals

  1. Cheryl Venet says:

    Wonderful as always. It makes me want to spend a week in Chicago experiencing theatre. Thanks for the link to the clip of Big mouth.


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