Tuesday, February 25, 2020

REVIEW: Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America At Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana Through March 22, 2020

ChiIL Live Shows on our radar:
Chicago-area Premiere of 
Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America
at Theatre at the Center in Munster

Photos by Guy Rhodes from left to right:  Steven Romero Schaeffer, Tommy Malouf and Sara Geist

Guest Review:
by Catherine Hellmann

“All my bags are packed. I’m ready to go. I’m standing here outside your door. I hate to wake you up to say good-bye…” Everybody, join in! “I’m leaving on a jet plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again. Oh, babe, I hate to gooooo.” 

My sister and I still sing this sweet yet melancholy tune to each other before a trip. The song, made popular by folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, is just one of the delightful  familiar melodies penned by John Denver featured in this show. There are so many moments during this charming musical that elicit a smile and recognition of, ”Oh, yeah! He wrote this one, too! I always liked this song...”

If you are a certain age, you will already be acquainted with “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”  The song that made me happiest to hear was the lovely rendition of “Fly Away,” and made me wonder why I don’t listen to more John Denver music. His songs certainly “speak to the human experience.” 

Yeah, so he was corny and he “sang with the Muppets,” Denver is ribbed in the very brief storyline. Denver, real name: Deuschendorf, Jr. (worth changing!), had a queaky-clean image that occasionally clashed with Real Life, such as his divorce from the woman who inspired the romantic “Annie’s Song.” (written in ten minutes while John sat on a ski lift in Colorado after the couple had a fight). He had some early controversy from his anti-Vietnam War songs, a couple DUIs, another unsuccessful marriage, and his longtime record label kicked him to the curb, but his fan base remained strong and unwavering. In fact, a lot of the background info stems from fan letters read aloud onstage. 

Aside from that, I learned that Denver was personally bummed about not being invited to perform at Woodstock! (can you just imagine “Grandma’s Feather Bed” in the same concert with Jimi Hendrix?? Ok, that song came five years later...and wasn’t all original, but it’s a hilarious image, right??) Otherwise, I feel like I didn’t learn much about the man. That is a fault in the plot---or lack thereof. 

My music-loving boyfriend commented, ”I thought it would be more like the ‘Buddy Holly Story’ with more acting. It was like a John Denver cover band.” 

That is no fault of the performers. Almost Heaven has a very talented cast of singers who are also accomplished musicians, playing guitars, banjo, and mandolin. Their harmonies are simply beautiful. Sara Geist, Tommy Malouf, Shannon McEldowney, Andrew Mueller, and Steven Romero Schaeffer sang some sections a cappella in arrangements that were completely fresh. The band is onstage, which is always cool to see. Alison Tatum deserves special note as the violinist. Everyone is having a great time. It’s a very fun, upbeat show.

Denver was an environmentalist who loved the natural beauty of our world. He would be very saddened to see how our earth is being mistreated and how many lands are in danger of being unprotected. I would have loved to see what inspiring and warning songs he would have produced today. From “Wild Montana Skies” to the lovely “Calypso,” written as a tribute to Jacques Cousteau, to the final “Yellowstone,” all are reminders of all the endearing songs John Denver still needed to give the world. 

Catherine Hellmann loves theater and traveling. She’s been to Colorado, Montana, and West Virginia. She thanks God that she’s a City Girl.  

Theatre at the Center Artistic Director Linda Fortunato has cast Shannon McEldowney, Steven Romero Schaeffer, Andrew Mueller, Sara Geist and Tommy Malouf in the musical revue Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America to open its 30th Anniversary Season.   The cast will be joined on stage by musicians William Underwood, Malcolm Ruhl and Alison Tatum.   Fortunato will direct and William Underwood is the Music Director.   Previews begin on February 13 with an Opening Night on February 16 and a continued run through March 22.

According to Variety, “The show pays tribute to an artist who remains great at making people feel good.”

Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America, written and adapted by Peter Glazer and directed by Linda Fortunato, is a musical tribute and intimate celebration of John Denver’s life and career.   From growing up in a military family to his emergence on the 1960s folk scene, the climb to ‘70s superstardom and his later career of the 1980s and 1990s, John Denver’s story is brought to life in this Chicago-area premiere through hits such as “Country Roads,” Rocky Mountain High,” Annie’s Song,” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”

Shannon McEldowney returns to TATC after her work swinging in The Pajama Game.   Other credits include Elf and Young Frankenstein at Little Theatre on the Square, Mama Mia at Drury Lane Oakbrook and Disaster at Chicago Theatre Workshop.

Steven Romero Shaeffer returns to TATC after performing in Big River in 2017.   His Chicago credits include roles in Always, Patsy Cline at Firebrand Theatre and Into the Woods at Writer’s Theatre.   He has also toured with Troupe America in Pump Boys and Dinettes.

Andrew Mueller is making his TATC debut.   Other Chicagoland credits include Jesus Christ Superstar at Lyric Opera, Rent at Paramount Theatre, Shakespeare In Love and As You Like It at Chicago Shakespeare, Man of La Mancha at Marriott Theatre and Big River at BoHo Theatre.   Off Broadway roles include Peter and The Starcatcher and Alice By Heart.

Sara Geist, making her debut at TATC, began her professional career at age 12 in The American Girl Revue.   Since then she has performed with Mason Street Warehouse, Emerald City Theatre, Intrinsic Theatre Co., Windy City Performs, Next Theatre and on TV in Chicago Fire.

Tommy Malouf returns to TATC where he last appeared as Johnny Cash in Million Dollar Quartet.   Other Chicago credits include work with Remy Bumppo, The House Theatre of Chicago, Jackalope and Steep.

The creative team for Almost Heaven: John Denver’s America includes Scenic Designer and Head of Production Ann Davis, Lighting Designer G. “Max” Maxin IV, Sound Designer Joe Palermo, Costume Designer Brenda Winstead and Prop Designer Melissa Geel.   Stage manager is Jessica Banaszak.   Linda Fortunato is teamed with TATC General Manager Richard Friedman.

Founded in 1991, the 410-seat TATC is a year-round professional theater at its home: The Center for Visual and Performing Arts, 1040 Ridge Road in Munster, Indiana.   TATC is an accessible venue with plenty of free parking and is located off I-80/94, just 35 minutes from downtown Chicago.

Performances are 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 3p.m and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays.   Individual tickets prices range from $42 - $46.   To purchase individual tickets, call the Box Office at 219-836-3255.   Group discounts are available for groups of 11 or more.   Student tickets are $20 and gift certificates are also available.   For more information on Theatre at the Center, visit

Sunday, February 16, 2020

REVIEW: Roan @ The Gates at American Blues Theater

American Blues Theater Presents the Chicago Premiere of 
Roan @ the Gates
Written by Christina Telesca Gorman
Directed by Lexi Saunders
Featuring Brenda Barrie and Jasmine Bracey

January 31 – February 29, 2020

Guest Review 
By Catherine Hellmann 

How well do you really know your spouse or significant other? Are you sure their job is legit?? How far would you go to keep your partner safe? Is it a flaw in the relationship to not divulge some information? Is not being completely upfront a form of lying? Should your partner know your passwords? 

Wow. All of these thought-provoking questions (and more!) arise in American Blues Theater’s Chicago premiere of Roan @ the Gates

This intense two-person show raises all these issues in its 80-minute running time. Brenda Barrie plays Roan, who does “something” in IT for the government. She’s very sketchy on the details of her job, including telling her wife Nat where she travels for work. Nat, a civil-rights attorney, pushes the issue one night before Roan departs again in the morning. Roan is very evasive about her duties and location to Nat’s growing consternation. 

Now, in all fairness, Roan never LIES outright to her spouse...but neither does she give full disclosure to what she does for a living or where she is going; she won’t even tell Nat how long her next flight is...hmmm...does this reveal dishonesty or a lack of trust? It’s interesting that Nat is an attorney who must always deal with client confidentiality, so why wouldn’t she back off when Roan is evasive about her employer? 

 But Nat is persistent in all matters. There is a great character reveal story about an auto dealership ripping the couple off with a repeated repair until the warranty on their brand-new car is expired. Nat says she hopped onto a car in the showroom and announced to a crowd of potential customers how these cars are “pieces of shit” which she calls the “sermon on the Passat.” She warns Roan that “people take advantage of other people. That’s what they do.” 

   Not to reveal too much of the plot’s secrets, but yes, all hell breaks loose once Roandeparts the country and is detained in Moscow, Russia. (The playwright, Christine Telesca Gorman, was inspired by events surrounding Edward Snowden.) Roan’s evasiveness was intended to protect Nat and keep her safe from knowing too much. 

Roan is called a traitor by her enemies and a whistleblower by her admirers, including Nat. Either way, she is not able to return to the U.S. Much of the dialogue is communicated through technology in Skype and messaging. We all know how difficult it can be to read tone in a text. As Roan exclaims to Nat in an IM, “Are you OMGing me?!”  Nat retorts: “Don’t you Allcaps me!” That exchange sounded like any couple in a disagreement, not separated by an ocean and government espionage.  

Roan is privvy to the continuous monitoring and collecting that is happening to all Americans every moment we use technology. She says the “NSA is harvesting data.” You sign into Netflix? You order from Amazon? You call an Uber? Yeah, well, you are being watched, according to Roan. Her prediction is eerie and creepy: “It’s not information they are collecting; it’s leverage.” Remember that quote next time you order lingerie online or send your friends an off-color joke…

Being a two-woman play, the actors need to be fantastic to pull this off. Both women do a fabulous job, but Jasmine Bracey as Nat is a revelation. I loved watching her facial expressions revealing every emotion as she reads her messages from Roan. 

Nat suggests joining Roan in Russia, but being a lesbian and biracial couple won’t fly in the land of Putin, where homosexuals were banned from the Sochi Olympics in 2014. More layers added to this complex story. 

There was a post-show discussion with a professor from Northwestern, Dr. Michele Kerulis. She addressed the topic “Privacy vs Secrecy,” which was illuminating. There will be other special events to coincide with this play as well. 

Great play for discussion over drinks afterwards. Maybe you should pay the tab in cash...      

Catherine Hellmann is a teacher, writer, and theater junkie. She has tried to inspire urban and rural middle schoolers for over twenty years. A mother of three, she is thrilled to once again claim Chicago as home.  

American Blues Theater continues its 2019-2020 Season with the Chicago Premiere of Roan @ The Gates, written by Christina Gorman* and directed by Lexi Saunders. Roan @ The Gates runs January 31, 2020 – February 29, 2020 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago.  

Nat is an outspoken civil rights attorney; Roan, the quiet one, is an NSA analyst who isn’t even allowed to tell her wife the location of her next business trip. A long-time couple confronts questions about their marriage they never thought to ask as their personal relationship collides with national security.

“This play’s drama teeters on the balance between marriage vows and the required oath to the Constitution by some federal employees,” notes Artistic Director Gwendolyn Whiteside. “Christina Telesca Gorman made this topic personal, intimate, and poignant. As you weigh Roan’s decisions in this perilous situation, try not to think about all the data points collected on you today: point-of-sale purchases, web addresses visited, social media posts, cell-phone tower pings, and municipal and private businesses’ video and audio recording devices. If you haven’t heard this battle cry yet, you will: data rights are human rights.”

The cast of Roan @ The Gates includes Brenda Barrie (Roan) and Jasmine Bracey (Nat).

The creative team includes Sarah E. Ross* (scenic), Jared Gooding* (lighting), Lily Walls* (costumes), Eric Backus* (composer/sound design), Amanda Barth (props), and Charlie Baker (intimacy). The production and stage manager is Shandee Vaughan.* 

*Denotes Ensemble and Artistic Affiliates of American Blues Theater

Roan @ The Gates is recommended for audiences ages 12+.

About the Artists

CHRISTINA TELESCA GORMAN (Playwright) is a proud Artistic Affiliate of American Blues Theater. Her plays include Fidelis (The Public Theater); American Myth (American Blues Theater, Theatre Artists Studio); Roan @ the Gates (Alley Theatre’s Alley All New Festival); On the Outs (Ensemble Studio Theater); Split Wide Open (NYC Summer Play Festival); Sorin: A Notre Dame Story (University of Notre Dame, national tour); Just Knots (national and international theatres, winner of Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival Plays 34th Series); Sacred Ground (Stella Adler Studio); and DNA (Prospect Theatre Company, Hangar Theatre). Her plays have been produced and/or developed at Geva Theatre Center, Capital Repertory Theatre, New Harmony Project, Lark Play Development Center, Troy Foundry Theatre, Stageworks/Hudson, Playwrights Foundation, and Berkshire Playwrights Lab. Christina is an inaugural member of The Public Theater Emerging Writers Group and a WP Theatre Playwrights Lab alumna. She is published by Samuel French and Smith & Kraus.

LEXI SAUNDERS (Director) is a queer director, performer, and teaching artist originally from Los Angeles. Recent Chicago directing credits include Power in Pride (About Face Theatre); The Departure (Haven Theatre); Eurydice (Jedlicka Performing Arts Center); Missed Opportunities (Cuckoo’s Theatre Project); Grounded (Theater of Thought); Fifty Shades of Shakespeare ((re)discover theatre); Super (Mudlark Theater); and various other works and staged readings at Victory Gardens, Gift Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, 2nd Story, Something Marvelous, and Pride Films & Plays. She has assistant directed for Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens, Steep Theatre, Jackalope Theatre, and La Jolla Playhouse; and was honored to be selected for Victory Gardens’ 2016 Directors Inclusion Initiative and Haven Theatre’s 2017 Directors Haven. Lexi is an Artistic Associate with About Face Theatre, where she currently directs the Outreach Ensemble touring a queer devised show to schools and events throughout the Midwest. Upcoming productions include Laced by Sam Mueller at About Face Theatre. She holds a BA in Theatre from UC San Diego.  

BRENDA BARRIE (Roan) is thrilled to return to American Blues Theater where she last performed in Six Corners. Select Chicago credits include United Flight 232 (House Theatre); The Downpour (Route 66); Mother Road (Goodman Theatre); Middletown, Sex with Strangers, and Okay Bye (Steppenwolf Theatre); Julius Caesar and Elizabeth Rex (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); Memory, Aunt Dan and Lemon, How I Learned to Drive, and Waiting for Lefty (Backstage Theatre); The Ruby Sunrise (Gift Theatre); Mrs. Caliban and Mariette in Ecstasy (Lifeline Theatre); A Streetcar Named Desire (Metropolis); and Caravaggio (Silk Road Rising). Brenda is a company member with the House Theatre, where she’s excited to perform the title role in Henry V later this spring. She’s received four Joseph Jefferson Award Nominations for Principal Actress and two Nominations for Ensemble. Television credits include Chicago Code, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and Chicago Fire. She received her BFA in Theatre from the University of Indianapolis and studied theatre at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland.

JASMINE BRACEY (Nat) is thrilled to be making her American Blues Theater debut. Chicago credits include: A Christmas Carol, How to Catch Creation, Lottery Day (u/s performed) (Goodman Theatre); A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); and Animal Farm (Steppenwolf Theatre). Regional credits include:  Shakespeare In Love, Truth: The Testimonial of Sojourner Truth (Hope Summer Rep); An Octoroon (Berkeley Repertory Theatre); You Can’t Take It with You (Alley Theatre); As You Like It (The Acting Company); Clybourne Park, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wit, The Little Foxes, O Beautiful, Our Town, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Resident Ensemble Players); Macando (Guthrie Theater); and Antony and Cleopatra (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival). She holds a MFA from the University of Delaware.

Dates: January 31 – February 29, 2020
Previews: January 31 – February 5, 2020
Press Performance: Friday, February 7, 2020 at 7:30pm
Regular Run: February 8 – 29, 2020

Schedule: Thursdays:  7:30pm
Fridays:  7:30pm
Saturdays:  3pm (except February 1 and 8) & 7:30pm (February 29)
Sundays:  2:30pm

Additional performances on Wednesday, February 5 at 7:30pm, Monday, February 24 at 7:30pm and Thursday, February 27 at 2:30pm

No performances on Saturday, February 1 at 3pm; Saturday, February 8 at 3pm; or Saturday, February 29 at 7:30pm

Free post-show discussions follow Sunday performances.

Touch Tour and Audio Described Performance on February 16 at 2:30pm

Open Captioned Performance on February 23 at 2:30pm

Location: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago

Ticket prices: $19 - $39
Box Office: Buy online at or by calling 773.654.3103.

All main stage performances take place at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. The Blue Card – the most affordable ticketing offer for the 2019-2020 season is available now at or by calling 773.654.3103. 

About American Blues Theater
Winner of the American Theatre Wing’s prestigious National Theatre Company Award, American Blues Theater is a premier arts organization with an intimate environment that patrons, artists, and all Chicagoans call home.  American Blues Theater explores the American identity through the plays it produces and communities it serves.

The diverse and multi-generational artists have established the second-oldest professional Equity Ensemble theater in Chicago.  The 32-member Ensemble has 600+ combined years of collaboration on stage. As of 2019, the theater and artists received 213 Joseph Jefferson Awards and nominations that celebrate excellence in Chicago theater and 38 Black Theatre Alliance Awards. The artists are honored with Pulitzer Prize nominations, Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Emmy Awards and numerous other accolades.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

REVIEW: Bug at Steppenwolf Now Extended Through March 15, 2020

ChiIL Live Shows on our radar
By Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-Winning 
Ensemble Member Tracy Letts
Directed by Tony Award Winner David Cromer 

NOW EXTENDED Through March 15, 2020

A Luridly Funny Tale of Love, Paranoia and Government Conspiracy Makes Its Steppenwolf Debut

Ensemble member Carrie Coon in Bug. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

by Bonnie Kenaz-Mara

Tracy Letts' Bug at Steppenwolf is a PTSD and crack fueled, descent into paranoia and self mutilation. This visceral production is guaranteed to evoke strong emotions. Bug begins on a hopeful note of friendship and support, but quickly spirals into collective hallucinations and self harm, rife with external enemies real and imagined. Sure, this shared reality is a strong bond and even a love of sorts, yet a twisted and destructive one. It's a testament to Tracy Letts' macabre imagination as storyteller, that this harrowing world exists on stage.

Pictured (L to R) ensemble members Carrie Coon (Agnes White) 
and Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans). All Photos by Michael Brosilow.

I can't fathom the energy and consummate skill it takes to become Agnes White (Carrie Coon) and Peter Evans (Namir Smallwood) night after night, for the run of this show. The supporting cast is strong and the principal characters are compelling. With an impressive array of award winners as cast and creatives, Steppenwolf's powerhouse production is a must see.

Pictured (L to R) ensemble member Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans), Jennifer Engstrom (R.C.) and ensemble member Carrie Coon (Agnes White)

It makes my skin crawl to think of having to live in that head space. And speaking of skin... this production bares it all, with full frontal male and female nudity, for a physical and mental vulnerability seldom asked of actors. Don't expect titilation, though. BUG is a searing indictment on a society that fails its most vulnerable, where skin isn't sexy, but an infested lair to be destroyed. 

Pictured (L to R) ensemble member Carrie Coon (Agnes White) 
and Steve Key (Jerry Goss)

We are given a woman with an abusive ex husband who has tried to murder her, freshly out of prison and back in her life against her will. Add to this her grief, desperation, and inability to find her missing son, abducted at age 6 from a grocery store, and Agnes is ripe for addiction and recruitment to Peter's delusions. Peter is a soldier, back from the Gulf War, and possibly damaged irreparably mentally and physically by combat followed by years in a military hospital psych ward, and a childhood as a home schooled preacher's son. Steppenwolf further adds the storyline of another layer of trauma, due to systemic, societal racism, by not casting a white man as Peter. 

Pictured ensemble member Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans) 

Spiraling into Peter and Agnes' world is not easy, but vitally important. By the climax, BUG brings the audience beyond fear and derision, to empathy and understanding. Through the dual meanings of "bug", this desperate couple battles an infestation of inner demons in the shape of insects, as well as invasive government tracking through transmitting bugs. 

(L to R) Steve Key (Jerry Goss) and ensemble member Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans) 
Their alternate reality makes perfect sense in so many ways, and that makes society's failure to save them from self destruction at once even more disastrous and inevitable. This type of hell on earth does exist for all too many, and we need to do better for those who get stuck there, and those who descend into their world with an outstretched hand, and sometimes fatal consequences. With our current politicians bent on dismantling protections for women and safety nets, while amping up the military, this storyline is more vital than ever. I've talked to people who hated BUG and those who've raved about it. Either way, Tracy Letts is a master at world building, and that's a win in my book. Highly recommended. 

Bonnie Kenaz-Mara is a Chicago based writer-theater critic-photographer-videographer-actress-artist-general creatrix and Mama to two terrific teens. She owns two websites where she publishes frequently: (adult) & (family friendly). 

They’re Everywhere…  

Due to popular demand, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Bug, the skin-crawling, mind-bending cult classic by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning ensemble member Tracy Letts, is extending one week and will now close on March 15, 2020. 

Directed by Tony Award winner David Cromer, the cast of this highly anticipated Steppenwolf debut features ensemble members Randall Arney (Dr. Sweet), Carrie Coon (Agnes White) and Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans) along with Chicago favorites Jennifer Engstrom (R.C.) and Steve Key (Jerry Goss). 

Pictured ensemble member Carrie Coon (Agnes White)   

In a seedy Oklahoma motel room, a lonely waitress begins an unexpected love affair with a young drifter. And then they see the first bugs...Tracy Letts’s mind-bending cult classic — a luridly funny tale of love, paranoia, and government conspiracy — roars back to Chicago for its Steppenwolf debut.

Bug will now run through March 15, 2020 in the Downstairs Theatre (1650 N. Halsted St). Single tickets ($20 - $125) are available through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or

 Pictured (L to R) ensemble member Carrie Coon (Agnes White) and ensemble member Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans)

Tracy Letts shares, “Bug explores folie à deux, a psychological term that means the madness of two—it’s when one person literally catches another person’s psychosis, which also seemed to me kind of like love…It’s a love story. Bug has primarily been done in really small spaces, normally in theaters of 100 seats or fewer, so to see it in our theater with the caliber of our actors and David Cromer directing…I can’t wait.”

Cast bios

Randall Arney (Dr. Sweet) has been a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble since 1984 and was the Artistic Director from 1987 to 1995. He was last on the Steppenwolf stage in The Seafarer in 2009. He directed last season’s acclaimed revival of True West and the 2013 production of Slowgirl, among others. Broadway transfers under his leadership as Steppenwolf Artistic Director included The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, The Song of Jacob Zulu (six Tony Award nominations) and The Grapes of Wrath (1990 Tony Award, Best Play). Arney recently served as the artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles (1999 - 2017). He has an M.F.A. degree in Acting from Illinois State University.

Carrie Coon (Agnes White) joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in 2019, and was last seen at Steppenwolf in the world premiere of Tracy Letts’s Mary Page Marlowe. Other Steppenwolf credits include Tracy Letts’s adaptation of Three Sisters, The March and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as “Honey,” a role that led to a Tony nomination and a Theatre World Award. She won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for her performance in HBO’s The Leftovers and a TCA Award for Individual Achievement in Drama for her performances in HBO’s The Leftovers and FX’s Fargo. For her performance in Amy Herzog’s world premiere Mary Jane, she garnered a 2018 Lucille Lortel Award, an Obie Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination. Current film projects include The Nest with Jude Law and Ghostbusters (Summer 2020).

Namir Smallwood (Peter Evans) joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in March 2017, where he has been seen in True West, Aziza Barnes’ BLKS, Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ Monster, Christina Anderson’s Man In Love and The Hot L Baltimore. Other Chicago credits include The Lost Boys of Sudan (Victory Gardens Theater); the world premiere of Philip Dawkins’ Charm (Northlight Theatre); The Grapes of Wrath (Gift Theatre) and East Texas Hot Links (Writers’ Theatre). Regional credits include Marin Theatre Company, Pillsbury House Theatre, Ten Thousand Things and Guthrie Theater. New York credits include Lincoln Center Theater’s productions of Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau and Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu. Television credits include Chicago Fire and Betrayal.

Jennifer Engstrom (R.C.) was recently on stage at Steppenwolf in Lindiwe. Additional Chicago credits include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The North Plan, Small Mouth Sounds, Simpatico, The Mutilated, Fatboy, 3C (A Red Orchid); Sweet Bird of Youth (Goodman); A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf (Writer’s); Sky Girls (Northlight); and Hot L Baltimore (Mary-Arrchie). Regional credits include Simpatico (McCarter Theatre); Angels in America (Kansas City Rep); and A Streetcar Named Desire (Williamstown Theatre Fest). In New York, she curated and performed in Excuse My Dust, a Dorothy Parker Portfolio. Film and TV credits include SLICE, Swing Shift and Chicago Fire.

Steve Key (Jerry Goss) was in the National Tour of Steppenwolf’s August: Osage County, and in previous Steppenwolf productions of One Arm, The Libertine, As I Lay Dying. His Broadway credits include SWEAT and Off Broadway The Effect (Barrow Street Theatre) and Blue Surge (The Public Theatre). Additional Chicago credits include Feathers & Teeth, Vigils, Zoo Story and Blue Surge (Goodman); Grace, Better Late (Northlight Theatre); Rest, Circle Mirror Transformation (Victory Gardens); Brothers Karamazov (Lookingglass); The Unseen (A Red Orchid), among others. TV credits include Boss, Chicago Fire, Elementary, Chicago Code, Mob Doctor and on film, Public Enemies, 1,000 Acres, Blackmail.

Playwright and Director Bios

Tracy Letts is a multifaceted award-winning actor and playwright. He is the author of The Minutes (Pulitzer finalist), Linda Vista, Mary Page Marlowe, The Scavenger’s Daughter, Superior Donuts, August: Osage County (Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award for Best Play), Man from Nebraska (Pulitzer finalist), Bug, and Killer Joe. He also wrote the screenplays for the films The Woman in the Window, August: Osage County, Bug, and Killer Joe. He won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Play for his performance as George in the Tony Award-winning revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. He joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in 2002, where he has appeared in American Buffalo, Betrayal, The Pillowman, The Pain and the Itch, The Dresser, Homebody/Kabul, The Dazzle, Glengarry Glen Ross, Three Days of Rain, many others. Other productions include The Realistic Joneses (Broadway) and Orson’s Shadow (Barrow Street Theatre, NY). Film appearances include Little Women, Ford v Ferrari, The Post, Lady Bird, The Lovers, Indignation, Christine, The Big Short, Imperium, Wiener-Dog, Guinevere. Steppenwolf production of his Letts’s play Linda Vista recently completed a successful run at Broadway’s Hayes Theater and was a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Steppenwolf’s production of Letts’s play The Minutes begins performances on Broadway at the Cort Theatre on February 25, 2020 with Letts in the cast.

David Cromer is a director and actor originally from Chicago, currently based in New York. As a director, his New York credits include The Sound Inside, which is currently running on Broadway; The Band’s Visit (2018 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, Ethel Barrymore Theatre); the Broadway revivals of Brighton Beach Memoirs and The House of Blue Leaves; The Treasurer (Playwrights Horizons); Man from Nebraska (Second Stage Theatre); The Effect, Orson’s Shadow and Tribes (Barrow Street Theatre); Women or Nothing (Atlantic Theater Company); Really Really (MCC Theater); When the Rain Stops Falling and Nikolai and the Others (Lincoln Center Theater); and Adding Machine (Minetta Lane Theatre). Other directing credits include Next to Normal (Writers Theatre); Come Back, Little Sheba (Huntington Theatre Company); The Sound Inside (Williamstown Theatre Festival); and Our Town in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Kansas City. As an actor, he recently appeared on Broadway as Howard Fine in the 2018 production of The Waverly Gallery. Prior to that, he appeared on Broadway as Karl Lindner in the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun, and Off-Broadway as the Stage Manager in Our Town, which he also directed, at the Barrow Street Theatre. He appeared in the HBO series “The Newsroom,” the Showtime series “Billions,” and in the motion picture The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Cromer has received a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, three Obie Awards, three Lucille Lortel Awards, a Joe A. Callaway Award, four Jeff Awards, and in 2010 was made a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.

The Bug creative team includes Takeshi Kata (Scenic Design); Sarah Laux (Costume Design); Heather Gilbert (Lighting Design); Josh Schmidt (Sound Design); Matt Hawkins (Fight Choreographer); Tonia Sina (Intimacy Choreographer); Sydney Charles (Dramaturg); Gigi Buffington (Company Voice, Text & Dialect Coach); Hallie Gordon (Artistic Producer); Tom Pearl (Director of Production); JC Clementz, CSA (Casting Director); Christine D. Freeburg (Production Stage Manager); and Jaclynn Joslin (Assistant Stage Manager). 

Ticket and Production Info

Dates: Through March 15, 2020
Regular Run: February 6 - March 15, 2020

Ticket prices
Previews: $20 – $98, Regular Run: $20 – $125. Prices subject to change.
20 for $20: A limited number of $20 tickets are available for subscription shows on the day of the performance at 11am (Mon – Sat) and 1pm (Sun), by phone only at 312-335-1650. Limit 2 per person.

Rush Tickets: Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show.
Student Discounts: Limited $15 student tickets are available online with code STUDENT15. Limit 2 tickets. Must present a valid student ID for each ticket. Learn more at

Group Tickets: All groups of 10 or more receive a discounted rate for any performance.

Teen Arts Pass: Steppenwolf is a partner of the Teen Arts Pass (TAP) initiative, which allows teens ages 13 to 19 to attend any Steppenwolf performance for $5. Teens can register for free to TAP at

Classic Memberships starting as low as $100 guarantee seats, offer early access to special events, invitations to behind-the-scenes events and special discounts at the theatre and in the neighborhood. Five and six play membership packages are now available; discounted packages for students and teachers and accessible packages are also offered.

Flexible Membership options include the Black Card, which starts as low as $180. With a Black Card, you receive six ticket credits to use whenever and however you want for an entire year. Use all six tickets before that year is up? Reload your card to keep those experiences coming.

Under 30? Join Steppenwolf RED Card for just $100 and enjoy the same six flexible tickets (that’s less than $17 a credit and almost 80% off single ticket prices). Black and RED cardholders receive exclusive discounts, special perks and insider access. For more information, visit

Committed to making the Steppenwolf experience accessible to everyone, performances featuring American Sign Language Interpretation, Open Captioning and Audio Description are offered during the run of each play. Assistive listening devices and large-print programs are available for every performance and the Downstairs and 1700 Theatres are each equipped with an induction hearing loop. All theaters feature wheelchair accessible seating and restrooms, and Front Bar features a push-button entrance, all-gender restrooms and accessible counter and table spaces.

Accessible performances:
American Sign Language Interpretation: Sunday, February 16 at 7:30pm
Open Captioning: Thursday, February 13 at 7:30pm and Saturday, March 7 at 3pm
Audio Description and Touch Tour: Sunday, March 1 at 3pm (1:30pm touch tour; 3pm curtain)

Visitor information
Steppenwolf is located at 1650 N Halsted St near all forms of public transportation, bike racks and Divvy bike stands. The parking facility ($15 or $17, cash or card) is located just south of our theater at 1624 N Halsted. Valet parking service ($15 cash) is available directly in front of the main entrance starting at 5pm on weeknights, 1pm on weekends and at 12noon before Wednesday matinees. Limited street and lot parking are also available. For last minute questions and concerns, patrons can call the Steppenwolf Parking Hotline at 312.335.1774.

Sponsor information
United Airlines is the Official and Exclusive Airline of Steppenwolf.

Front Bar: Coffee and Drinks
Connected to the main lobby is Steppenwolf’s own Front Bar: Coffee and Drinks, offering an inviting space to grab a drink, have a bite, or meet up with friends and collaborators, day or night. Open Tuesdays – Sundays, Front Bar serves locally roasted coffee and espresso by Passion House Coffee Roasters and features food by The Goddess and Grocer. The menu focuses on fresh, accessible fare, featuring grab-and-go salads and sandwiches for lunch and adding shareable small plates and desserts for evening and post show service.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf Theatre Company is the nation’s premier ensemble theater. Formed by a collective of actors in 1976, the ensemble members represent a remarkable cross-section of actors, directors and playwrights. Thrilling and powerful productions from Balm in Gilead and August: Osage County to MS. BLAKK FOR PRESIDENT—and accolades that include the National Medal of Arts and 12 Tony Awards—have made the theater legendary. Steppenwolf produces hundreds of performances and events annually in its three spaces: the 515-seat Downstairs Theatre, the 299-seat Upstairs Theatre and the 80-seat 1700 Theatre. Artistic programming includes a seven-play season; a two-play Steppenwolf for Young Adults season; Visiting Company engagements; and LookOut, a multi-genre performances series. Education initiatives include the nationally recognized work of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which engages 15,000 participants annually from Chicago’s diverse communities; the esteemed School at Steppenwolf; and Professional Leadership Programs for arts administration training. While firmly grounded in the Chicago community, nearly 40 original Steppenwolf productions have enjoyed success both nationally and internationally, including Broadway, Off-Broadway, London, Sydney, Galway and Dublin. Anna D. Shapiro is the Artistic Director and David Schmitz is the Executive Director. Eric Lefkofsky is Chair of Steppenwolf’s Board of Trustees.

Steppenwolf's mission
Steppenwolf strives to create thrilling, courageous and provocative art in a thoughtful and inclusive environment. We succeed when we disrupt your routine with experiences that spark curiosity, empathy and joy. We invite you to join our ensemble as we navigate, together, our complex world.

Pictured ensemble member Carrie Coon (Agnes White) in Steppenwolf’s production of Bug by ensemble member Tracy Letts, directed by David Cromer in the DownstairsTheatre, 1650 N Halsted St. January 23 – March 8, 2020. Tickets are available at 312-335-1650 and Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

REVIEW: Voice of Good Hope at City Lit Now Playing Through February 23, 2020

ChiIL Live Shows on our radar
by City Lit’s resident playwright Kristine Thatcher
Directed by Terry McCabe
January 10 – February 23, 2020

FINAL 2 WEEKS! Don't miss this Chicago Reader Recommended and 4-Star 
Sun-Times show!

"FOUR STARS...captures the sense and sensibility of a bonafide powerhouse."
-Chicago Sun-Times

"Recommended...Voice of Good Hope comes just in time"
-Chicago Reader

Andrea Conway-Diaz as Barbara Jordan
Photo credit for all, Steve Graue

by Bonnie Kenaz-Mara

As the senate impeachment hearings wrap up, caucus votes roll in, and the 2020 campaigns amp up, political plays are filling the stages of Chicago as well. I was finally able to catch City Lit's excellent production, Voice of Good Hope last night. It was great to learn so much about Barbara Jordan, the first African American congresswoman from the Deep South, that I was unaware of before. This production is a gem of wit and wisdom. Women like Barbara Jordan give me hope for our democracy and our country's future. If you're tired of the lies and lunacy that have infiltrated Washington DC, come spend a few hours at City Lit and recharge. Recommended. 

There are numerous strong shows on stage right now in Chicago, if you prefer your political figures to be articulate, intelligent and female. We recommend catching Voice of Good Hope at City Lit (Barbara Jordan), The Adult in the Room (Nancy Pelosi) at Victory Gardens, and A So-Called Qualified Woman (Sandra Day O’Connor), part of Valiant Theatre's New Works Festival. We also highly recommend Roe at The Goodman, for the back story on the Roe V. Wade ruling.

Voice of Good Hope
left to right: McKennzie Boyd, Jamie Black

The storyline of Voice of Good Hope is delightfully nonlinear and I enjoyed meeting her first as a politician, before delving into her childhood to meet the Texas child she was. Heart (Barbara as a child) was deftly played by McKennzie Boyd the day I caught the production, alternating with her sister, MiKayla. It was stellar storytelling to see the seeds of Barbara Jordan's determination, intelligence, perception and personality already in play as she interacts with her relative (Jamie Black) and discovers early lessons on racism, religion, and character. 

Her fierce determination, despite physical limitations is an inspiration. Although she ultimately died young, before age 60, of pneumonia and complications of leukemia and multiple sclerosis, her words and example live on. Now that we have another impeached president currently in the white house, Barbara's legendary history with Nixon's impeachment is all too timely. It was fascinating to me, how she protected her integrity and principles even after retirement, and wouldn't endorse or clear a fellow politician just because they were both black women, if she wasn't on board with her views. Conversely, it was a joy to see her navigating the good old boys network of cigarette smoking, whisky swilling Washington power brokers, and winning at it. She was truly an inspiration and a trailblazer today's women in politics might do well to emulate. 

Andrea Conway-Diaz (left) as Barbara Jordan and Susie Griffith as Nancy Earl 

Don't miss this. We're nearing the end of the run for Voice of Good Hope, so catch it while you can. City Lit does an excellent job of keeping her legacy alive and inspiring audiences. Do leave extra time to search out parking. It can be a challenge around Edgewater.

Bonnie Kenaz-Mara is a Chicago based writer-theater critic-photographer-videographer-actress-artist-general creatrix and Mama to two terrific teens. She owns two websites where she publishes frequently: (adult) & (family friendly). 

Kristine Thatcher’s VOICE OF GOOD HOPE is a bio-drama of Barbara Jordan, the first African American congresswoman from the Deep South. Jordan earned national stature in the 1970’s as a member of the House Judiciary Committee that considered articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and as the keynote speaker of the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Kristine Thatcher, who is City Lit’s playwright-in-residence, was nominated for Best New Work in the 2019 Jeff Awards for her play, THE SAFE HOUSE, which premiered at City Lit last fall. VOICE OF GOOD HOPE premiered at Victory Gardens Theater in 2000 and has been produced across the US since then. 

The play follows Jordan from her childhood in Houston’s Fifth Ward through her receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, and deals with her pivotal role on the House Judiciary Committee during its hearings concerning the possible impeachment of President Richard Nixon, her complex political relationship with Texas power broker Robert Strauss, her struggle with MS, and her twenty-year relationship with Nancy Earl, her companion and occasional speechwriter, and ultimately her caregiver. The play premiered at Victory Gardens Theater in 2000 and has been produced from New York to San Francisco in the years since then.

left to right: Paul Chakrin and Andrea Conway-Diaz

The role of Barbara Jordan is played by Andrea Conway-Diaz. Also in the cast are Susie Griffith (Nancy Earl), Sahara Glasener-Boles (Karen Woodruff), Jamie Black (John Ed Patten), Paul Chakrin (Robert Strauss), Noelle Klyce (Julie Dunn); and McKennzie Boyd and MiKayla Boyd, who will alternate as “Heart” – Barbara Jordan as a child. The design team includes Ray Toler (set design), Katy Vest (costume design) and Daniel Salazar (lighting design).

left to right: Andrea Conway-Diaz, Sahara Glasener-Boles

Regular run Sunday, January 19 - Sunday, February 23, 2020
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3 pm. Mondays February 10 and 17 at 7:30 pm

Regular run ticket prices $32.00, seniors $27.00, students and military $12.00 (all plus applicable fees).

Performances at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Chicago 60660 (Inside Edgewater Presbyterian Church)

For forty years, City Lit Theater has been dedicated to the vitality and accessibility of the literary imagination. City Lit produces theatrical adaptations of literary material, scripted plays by language-oriented playwrights, and original material. City Lit Theater was founded with $210 pooled by Arnold Aprill (at the time the Body Politic Theatre’s box office manager), David Dillon, and Lorell Wyatt on October 9, 1979 and was incorporated on March 25, 1980.  There were still so few theatres in Chicago that at City Lit’s launch event, they were able to read a congratulatory letter they had received from Tennessee Williams.

City Lit is in the historic Edgewater Presbyterian Church building at 1020 West Bryn Mawr Avenue. We are two blocks east of both the Bryn Mawr Red Line stop and the #36 Broadway and the #84 Peterson buses. We are one block west of the #147 Sheridan and #151 Sheridan buses. Divvy bike stations are located at Bryn Mawr & Lakefront Trail, and at Broadway & Ridge at Bryn Mawr. The metered street parking pay boxes on Bryn Mawr have a three-hour maximum duration and are free on Sundays. $10 valet service is available at Francesca's Bryn Mawr at 1039 W Bryn Mawr diagonally across the street from us on the SW corner of Kenmore and Bryn Mawr and is available whether you are dining at the restaurant or not. There are additional details about parking and dining options at

City Lit is supported by the Alphawood Foundation, the MacArthur Funds for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Ivanhoe Theater Foundation, the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council Agency and is sponsored, in part, by A.R.T. League.

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