This isn’t a “best theater of 2018” list. We didn’t see everything. Most of our writers are freelancers, all with other gigs, and it’s hard for us to cover the hundreds of theater productions in this great theater city. We cover some of the large Equity theaters and review some Broadway in Chicago shows, and we love the amazing storefront theaters—hundreds of them—that are trying to make a go of it.
Our theater reviewers picked their favorites among the shows they saw this year, and this is the result, in alphabetical order. Special mentions are listed at the end.
All My Sons at Court Theatre. Charles Newell’s production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is an emotionally wrenching tragedy. Secrets and lies that have been hidden for years are gradually teased out. Not until the last few minutes do you understand the enormity of the story and then it punches you in the gut…. Newell’s direction is profound. He takes an ordinary family and delineates their story as the war crimes of Joe Keller (John Judd) are revealed. The reactions of his wife Kate (Kate Collins) and their son Chris (Timothy Edward Kane) are devastating. — Nancy Bishop
Beauty Queen of Leenane at Northlight Theatre. This production of Martin McDonagh’s quietly devastating dark comedy, takes place in the provincial town of Leenane. Directed by B.J. Jones, the Tony Award-winning play details the life of Maureen (Kate Fry), a 40-year-old woman who lives with and cares for her aging mother, Mag (Wendy Robie). At first appearance, Mag appears both frail and needy; however, we quickly gain deeper insight into her manipulative nature as we see her meddle with Maureen’s life more and more. – Brent Eickhoff
Big Mouth at Chicago Shakespeare. Belgian performer Valentijn Dhaenens created and performs the solo juggernaut Big Mouth, an 85-minute assemblage of speech snippets spanning the ages, most recent and many political, some in Dutch, German and French (with English surtitles on stage). Dhaenens honed the piece at the 2012 and 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, after dedicating himself to reading over a thousand speeches in a year. — Karin McKie and Kim Campbell
Boy at Timeline Theatre. Anna Ziegler’s Boy is inspired by the true story of a Canadian male child born physically male but reassigned and raised as a female after a botched circumcision, following medical advice and intervention. His parents wonder if he’s a hermaphrodite, and the play, under Damon Kiely’s tight and thoughtful direction, muses about whether everyone is actually “a blank slate at birth.”— Karin McKie
Downstate at Steppenwolf Theatre. Bruce Norris’ play concerns a group of four registered sex offenders sharing a house in downstate Illinois. Director Pam MacKinnon, working from Bruce Norris’ dynamic and layered script, directs each performance with a fine-tooth comb. This is a group of detestable, rotten apples, but each of these men is also, in his own way, disarming and hilarious, with quirks and charms that make us forget why they are in this make-shift homestead wearing ankle bracelets; until we’re reminded, and once again infuriated, by the hypocrisy.– Matthew Nerber
Frankenstein at Remy Bumppo Theatre and Manual Cinema at Court Theatre. These two outstanding productions of Frankenstein are both based on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. They are both innovative but vastly different in staging. The Remy Bumppo production, based on the Nick Dear script, shows us a sad and lonely Creature who becomes a monster. Is he a monster or is he turned into a monster by the hatred and aggression of those who meet him and cannot abide his ugliness? The staging and makeup and the performances by the two leads (Nick Sandys and Greg Matthew Anderson) are superb. Manual Cinema’s production is a weirdly enchanting version of Shelley’s story. Nine puppeteers and musicians display the original story of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature, combined with Shelley’s own biography, on a multitude of screens with a multitude of equipment and instruments. Because the story proceeds in many different ways at the same time, each audience member may see a different version; it’s part of Manual Cinema’s magic. – Nancy Bishop
The Gentleman Caller at Raven Theatre. It was worth seeing this lovely new play by Chicago’s Philip Dawkins just to see Rudy Galvan play Tennessee Williams. The play is about a first meeting between Williams and playwright William Inge in 1946. It was revelatory to see Galvan become Tennessee Williams, with his mustache, sly smile, sexy manner and wicked sense of humor. Galvan gives an extraordinary performance. Curtis Edward Jackson’s performance is strong and poignant, although his character is subdued and less colorful than Williams. – Nancy Bishop
Gypsy at Porchlight Music Theatre. Directed by Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber, the story of Rose, a stage mother intent on seeing her daughters succeed in vaudeville where she never could, is a knock-out with E. Faye Butler in the lead role. This is a stunning interpretation of an enduring American classic. Butler’s performance alone is worth the price of admission; the rest is Porchlight doing what it does best, presenting exceptional musical theater. – Lisa Trifone
Insurrection: Holding History by Stage Left Theatre. Robert O’Hara’s play, directed by Wardell Julius Clark, is a satirical, time-traveling look at our history of slavery and repression, race and identity. O’Hara turns time on its head to take us back to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, seen through the eyes of a gay African-American history graduate student (the always notable Breon Arzell) from our era. Insurrection is raucous, funny and sometimes a bit confusing. It toys with our attitudes about history, slavery and sexual identity. In particular, it plays with our minds about what we remember (or prefer not to remember) about slavery, that peculiar institution that haunts us today.– Nancy Bishop
Southern Gothic at Windy City Playhouse. This immersive production, where actors and audience mingle, takes place in a prairie-style home built out at WCP. Southern Gothic succeeds in its intimacy, the immediate nature of seeing one alcohol-fueled confrontation happen here while you eye a clandestine flirtation taking place over there. You won’t catch everything that happens, and it’s understandable if that concerns you; why go to a show where you know right away you’ll miss some of it? Rest assured, the team has thought through all of this. Between the compact, open setting and the pacing of a show that leans into its ebbs and flows, you’ll still enjoy a solid narrative arc. — Lisa Trifone
The Steadfast Tin Soldier at Lookingglass Theatre. Based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, this impressive production employs five actors to populate the story of a one-legged toy soldier, his love for a paper ballerina, and the miniature odyssey that keeps them apart. Working from her own script, Mary Zimmerman develops this tale in the style of British holiday pantomime, with scarcely a line of dialogue (save some bits of cleverly positioned text that is as delightful as it is informative). On the Lookingglass stage, the tale unfurls on both miniature and life-size levels, zooming in and out between the drama of the toys and the people who own them. — Matthew Nerber
Waiting for Godot by Druid Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare. Druid Theatre of Galway, Ireland, created a radiant production of Samuel Beckett’s Godot. Directed by Garry Hynes, the play stars four renowned Irish actors. The stars are Didi and Gogo (Vladimir played by Marty Rea with Aaron Monaghan as Estragon), the two souls waiting at a country crossroads for someone named Godot. Whether or not you think it’s about existential dread, it’s very funny. Didi and Gogo wait, wonder, dance, exercise, pass the time in myriad ways. — Nancy Bishop
Women Laughing Alone with Salad at Theater Wit.These are women’s stories (under the direction of female Devon de Mayo), their “greatest dreams and worst nightmares,” a bittersweet exploration of societal expectations and constrictions, of three-dimensional people who are “tired of being someone I’m not.” Everyone wants what they don’t have, underscored by the Stepford-smiling photos projected behind them—first on three skewed screens, which become straightened in the second act. A delicious production, this play, updated to keep pace with the #MeToo movement, offers an amuse-bouche to prepare for a heartier discussion about gender parity.– Karin McKie
Deserving special mention
Columbinus, the Yard
The Displaced, Haven Theatre
Guards at the Taj, Steppenwolf Theatre
Hamlet, Gift Theatre
The Harvest, Griffin Theatre
HeLa, Sideshow Theatre
Indecent, Victory Gardens Theater.
The Lady Demands Satisfaction, Babes with Blades
Mendoza, Los Colochos Teatro of Mexico City
Monsieur d’Eon Is a Woman, Trap Door Theatre
Rightlynd, Victory Gardens Theater
La Ruta at Steppenwolf Theatre
A Shayna Maidel, Timeline Theatre
The Shipment, Red Tape Theatre
The Woman in Black, the Royal George Theatre
You for Me for You, Sideshow Theatre
Finally, Karin McKie reviewed the CBC series about a Canadian repertory company when it became available for free streaming on YouTube. Slings and Arrows is a theater-lover’s dream and her review was one of our most popular posts with readers this year.