In the balmy summer months, prevailing wisdom dictates that playgoers not be asked to exercise their brains overmuchit's just too hot for crying into our hankies, doncha know? Another school of thought prescribes likewise unstressful fare for winter's dark days, when people need to be coaxed from their warm caves by optimistic reassurances. And what about spring? Oh, why spoil this happy season of renewal and rebirth with gloomy reminders of the troubles we'll soon face once again?
The 12 weeks from Labor Day to Thanksgiving are too short a season for wearing our thinking caps, and so several theaters are opting to chase away the cold at the very start of 2011 with productions designed to open our minds to new ideas and fresh resolve:
Timeline takes us to a Sudanese refugee camp with Winter Miller's In Darfur (opens Jan. 22, 773-281-8463), while Skokie's Northlight Theatre introduces us to the courageous women of Liberia in Danai Gurira's Eclipsed (opens Jan. 22, 847-673-6300). Signal Ensemble resurrects Dario Fo's satirical lampoon of Italian bureaucracy, Accidental Death of An Anarchist (opens Feb. 14, 773-347-1350). And Chicago Shakespeare hosts Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland's reconnaissance report on the war in Iraqstaged, not in a pretty courtyard at Navy Pier, but in the bowels of a spartan vault in Uptown once serving as a real-life armory (opens March 29, 312-595-5600).
Our own country is not without its problems, too: At the Goodman, Regina Taylor's expanded Trinity River Plays traces the progress of a young Texas woman through a trilogy of stories spanning nearly four decades (opens Jan. 24, 312-443-3800). Neighborhood audiences can ponder the conflict between progressive capitalism and historical preservation in Raven Theatre's productionthe first in Chicago since its premiere in our cityof August Wilson's Radio Golf (opens Feb. 27, 773-338-2177) or empathize with the lone Black student attending a posh Wisconsin private school in MPAACT's Ghosts of Atwood (opens Jan. 25 at the Greenhouse, 773-404-7336).
Lest anyone dismiss ethnic intrigues as a purely political subject, Maya Productions presents Oren Neeman's Convictionbased on the novel by Yonatan Ben Nachumwhich recounts an Israeli scholar's attempt, in 1960, to expunge a 15th-century dossier from the files of the Spanish Inquisition (opens Feb. 6 at Theater Wit, 773-975-8150). And speaking of religious tensions, look for Young Jean Leethe "Young" is part of the playwright's nameto offer some opinions in Red Tape's premiere production of Church (opens Jan. 31 at St. Peter's Church in Lakeview, 773-525-0844).
Right next to politics and religion on the list of things we weren't to talk about at holiday parties were social issues hearkening to lapses in our self-proclaimed moral high ground. Stage Left lifts that ban with Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, as adapted by Arthur Miller during the McCarthy era, to expose the flaws of "popular opinion" (opens March 1 at Theater Wit, 773-975-8150). Another Ibsen play, this time sparking memories of how far we have come, is Infamous Commonwealth's A Doll's House, updated to 1962 Americathe year just before Betty Frieden's Feminine Mystique re-inspired women to demand their full rights as U.S. citizens (opens Jan. 22 at the Greenhouse, 773-404-7336).
Let's not forget those personal stories that nevertheless provide a microcosmic gateway to a culture: the bleak western coast of Ireland depicted in Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West (currently extended to Jan. 30 at Gift Theatre, 773-283-7071) or The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which inaugurates Shattered Globe's post-restructure comeback (opens Jan. 16 at the Athenaeum, 773-935-6860). Simon Stephens' Port, staged by Griffin Theatre (opens Jan. 16 at the Raven Complex, 800-838-3006), David Mamet's Lakeboat at Steep Theater (opens Jan. 20, 866-811-4111), Aline Lathrop's Bordello at Chicago Dramatists (opens Feb. 4, 312-633-0630) and Laura Jacqmin's Dead Pile, presented by XIII Pocket productions (opens Feb. 3 at Stage 773, 773-327-5252) offer glimpses of worlds farfor now, anywayfrom our own.
If you anticipate your head bursting with all this enlightenment, you can take refuge under the provocatively dubbed heading of "sexual politics" and go to Steppenwolf for Laura Eason's First Look hit, Sex With Strangers, featuring Sally Murphy and the charismatic Stephen Louis Grush (opens Jan. 30, 312-335-1650) or to Profiles for their latest collaboration with the author-we-love-to-hate Neil LaBute, titled Reasons To Be Pretty (opens Jan. 27, 773-549-1815).
And if you really don't care what's on the quiz, you can take a chance on two plays that mayor maybe notaddress your intellect: J.T. Rogers, who gave us history-as-pulp-fiction with Overwhelmed in 2009, returns to Next Theatre with his latest Eurothriller, Madagascar (opens Jan. 24 at the Noyes Arts Center in Evanston, 847-475-1875) and Route 66's premiere of Caitlin Montanye Parrish's A Twist of Water, whose premise brings together a gay father, his adopted African-American daughter and an idealistic teacher (opens Feb. 17 at Theater Wit, 773-975-8150).