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Best Of 2014: Our 10 Favorite Theater Productions

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 30, 2014 4:30PM

'The Humans' at American Theatre Co.

It's always difficult to pare down a full season of theater into the 10 top productions of the year, but especially so in 2014, when Chicago audiences witnessed plenty of pre-Broadway tryouts, several extended runs and even a marathon 12-hour Greek tragedy.

But in an effort to quantify, here are our picks for the best plays and musicals of the year, beginning with the best:

1) The Humans — This soon-to-be-off-Broadway play is receiving its intimate first staging and the American Theatre Co., and playwright Stephen Karam doesn’t let a single topical theme go unexplored: family dysfunction, debt, unemployment, chronic health issues. But despite all that, The Humans, at its core, manages to unearth both sharply observed familial truths and heartfelt emotion.

2) Hedda Gabler — In perhaps one of her finest performances, Chicago favorite Kate Fry depicted a blistering Hedda Gabler at Writers Theatre. Ibsen’s Gabler, a woman so mired in her own web of social standing and personal destruction that she can’t ever be content, is a commanding presence, and Fry’s performance was the most memorable that I’ve seen. Bonus points for the usual charms of Sean Fortunado, playing Hedda’s husband, Tesman, and a compelling Chaon Cross as the long-suffering Thea Elvsted.

Mary Beth Fisher (Caroline) and Erik Hellman (Cliff) in the world-premiere production of Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Robert Falls.
3) Luna GaleThe Goodman's production of Rebecca Gilman’s blazing Luna Gale exposed just a slice of the overworked, under-appreciated social services industry—and that was all it took to impress this important new play into the minds of theatergoers. Mary Beth Fisher was a highlight (among many) as a social worker attempting to help two young, meth addict parents come clean and regain custody of their daughter.

4) Annapurna — The intimate, unassuming Annapurna at Profiles’ Theatre turned out to be an emotionally dense 70 minutes, filled with past and present heartbreak, rekindled romance and mistakes left unexplored. Only two characters—disgruntled former poet Ulysses and his buttoned-up ex-wife Emma—grace the stage, yet the set seems crowded with 20 years of long-buried emotion.

5) This is Our YouthThe Steppenwolf’s pre-Broadway tryout of This is Our Youth was a worthy endeavor, featuring a small yet star-making cast playing ‘80s-era, entitled misfits that might give today’s millennials the proverbial run for their money.

6) Venus in Fur — David Ives has had a prolific Chicago presence the past couple of years, and the Midwest premiere of the playwright’s latest drama, Venus in Fur, is certainly his most enigmatic work. Staging a sort of play-within-a-play between an unconsciously arrogant writer and a brash young actress is not an easy task, but the Goodman’s production managed to be both a sharp-witted comedy and a complex bit of melodrama.

7) Rent — Kudos to the Paramount for bucking the traditional convention of large-scale suburban theaters and staging a full-blown, non-apologetic version of Rent, with Sawyer Smith as a standout Angel among a cast of fully wrought, emotionally driven characters.

'The Gospel of Lovingkindness' at Victory Gardens Theater. Photo by Michael Courier.
8) The Gospel of Lovingkindness — Although Victory Gardens staged Marcus Gardley’s achingly moving play about youth-led
Chicago violence well before the events in Ferguson, Missouri, The Gospel of Lovingkindness seems even more relevant—and sobering—amid the recent headlines.

9) PericlesChicago Shakespeare Theater’s current (read: still playing) production of Pericles brings light and movement to an otherwise problematic play, and the Canadian-actor-turned-Chicago-favorite Ben Carlson delivers a fully realized performance of the show’s title character.

10) Sweet Smell of SuccessKokandy Productions' intimately staged yet seemingly large-scale production of the Hamlisch tuner Sweet Smell of Success dripped with the hardboiled edginess of 1950s New York City, which is fitting for a show that delves into the murky underworld of newspaper gossip columnists and the unwitting side acts who get caught up in such scandal.

And, just for fun, a few honorable mentions: AshonRep's Wit, Drury Lane's Les Miserables, Broadway in Chicago's Peter and the Starcatcher, Steppenwolf's Russian Transport and Haven Theatre's Seminar.