Summer requires a different approach to theater-going than the other seasons because it boasts dozens of theaters that operate only in the summermany of them outdoors.
All of these theaters beyond the Chicago metro area are within a half-day's drive and are near outstanding vacation attractions. The particular show isn't as important as enjoying a different type of theater experience, perhaps part of a weekend getaway that comes with a wonderful picnic, a Victorian B&B or river-rafting as part of the bargain. Theaters are listed by state: Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. ( Indiana has a few, too. )
Illinois Shakespeare Festival, BloomingtonFor its 40th-anniversary season, Illinois Shakespeare Festival presents A Midsummer Night's Dream, Cymbeline and I Heart Juliet, a new rap version of R&J by The Q Brothers. The real Shakes will be performed outdoors in the modern 438-seat amphitheater on the landscaped lawn of Tudoresque Ewing Manor, where you can picnic and enjoy pre-show strolling musicians. The rap Shakes will be performed in a nearby indoors venue. Stay two days, see all three plays and enjoy Bloomington's Victorian architecture, the freshly-sourced restaurants, a friendly B&B and the charms of country antiquing or a tour of the Beer Nuts factory. Details: June 28-Aug. 12; $31-$47; TheFestival.org
Little Theatre-on-the-Square, Sullivan60th anniversary season! Founded in 1957 by Guy S. Little, Jr., son of a local farming family, the Little Theatre for years was the only professional theater between Chicago and St. Louis. Guy long ago turned over operation of the theater to a non-profit corporation, which continues the tradition of offering a summer stock season of musicals, among them Beauty and the Beast, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Smokey Joe's Café and three more, each playing for two weeks. The Little Theatre is a real, indoor theater ( blessedly with A/C ) on a real Victorian town square. It's in Illinois Amish Country and close to the Lake Shelbyville recreation area and the Lincoln shrines. Details: June 7-Sept. 3; $30; TheLittleTheatre.org
Timber Lake Playhouse, Mt. CarrollNot far from the Mississippi and its historic river towns ( Savannah, Galena ) and Apple River Canyon State Park, Timber Lake Playhouse has offered a summer stock line-up of musicals and plays since 1961 in a casual indoor pavilion with a Broadway-sized stage. This year's line-up features Evita, Carousel, Ah, Wilderness! ( the famous Eugene O'Neill comedy ) and Scapino ( farce ) among six shows in all, each for a two-week run. Details: June 1-Aug. 20; $25; TimberLakePlayhouse.org
American Players Theatre, Spring GreenCheek-by-jowl with Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the Wisconsin River ( canoeing, fishing, nude beach ), American Players Theatre ( APT ) has offered a rotating repertory of classic plays for 38 years, and has become one of the nation's leading destination theaters in the process. Spring Green has country charms plus good restaurants ( and a very good bookstore ) which help make APT a don't-miss three-day summer destination. The troupe has spectacular wooded grounds on a hillside above the river with plenty of free parking and picnic tables ( and gas-fired grills so you can bbq ). Plays are offered in a handsome newly-renovated 1100-seat outdoor amphitheater and a 200-seat indoor space. For 2017 Pericles, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear and Miller's A View from the Bridge are among the 10-play rotating repertory. Details: June 10-Oct. 22; $49-$78; AmericanPlayers.org
Door Shakespeare, Bjorklunden Estate, Baileys HarborSince 1995, Door Shakespeare has offered outdoor classics within the beautifully-wooded grounds of a former private estate of over 400 acres on the so-called "quiet side" of the Door County peninsula, due north of Chicago, facing the open Lake Michigan vs. Green Bay. The grounds offer walking trails, a garden and picnicking. This season's shows are Twelfth Night and something new, The Heart of Robin Hood, a great swashbuckler for a woodland setting. They run in rotating repertory. Details: July 1-Aug. 19; $30; DoorShakespeare.com
Northern Sky Theater, Peninsula State Park, Fish CreekNow in its 27th year, this company presents a rotating repertory of family-friendly, 90-minute musicals, all of them original and based on American life both past and present. This year's season includes Oklahoma in Wisconsin ( described as a doo-wop show ), Naked Radio, Lumberjacks in Love and two others. Performances are in a well-equipped amphitheater in Peninsula State Park on the shores of Green Bay, considered the busier side of Door County. The large park offers numerous pleasures such as camping, hiking, biking, golf, swimming and a 131-year old lighthouse. The park charges a fee for day-trippers and campers, but you can enter at no charge just to see the show. Details: June 14-Oct. 21; $22-$29; NorthernSkyTheater.com
Peninsula Players, Fish CreekStill more Door. For 82 years, the Peninsula Players ( PP ) has been a don't-miss attraction for Door County vacationers and summer colonists. A classic summer stock operation with a resident company, PP usually offers a musical, a whodunit, a comedy and a drama, all presented in a new weather-protected pavilion. Peter and the Starcatcher and The Bridges of Madison County are in this year's line-up. The PP is summer home for many familiar Chicago actors such as Greg Vinkler, who is PP's artistic director. PP is directly on the shore of Green Bay, with plenty of free parking, gardens, picnic grounds, a bar, perfect sunset views and a nightly post-show bonfire; Details: June 13-Oct. 15; $38-$44; PeninsulaPlayers.com
Barn Theatre, AugustaAfter 71 years, this classic and legendary summer stock operation has refashioned itself as the Barn Theatre School for Advanced Theatre Training, a non-profit designation that will help keep it going, and one which emphasizes its youthful apprentice company working alongside veteran Equity guest artists. Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Buddy, We Will Rock You and The Lion in Winter are among this year's six shows, playing two-week runs. The theaterwhich really IS an old dairy barnis in the very small town of Augusta, half-way between Kalamazoo ( home of Gibson guitars ) and Battlecreek ( home of Kellogg's ), the closest towns with decent amenities. The Barn itself has a bar where the apprentices offer a nightly post-show cabaret. Details: June 13-Sept. 3; $37; BarnTheatreSchool.org
Lakeside Shakespeare Company, FrankfortWell-known Chicago actor and director Elizabeth Laidlaw founded this company in 2003, offering free summertime Shakespeare to citizens of Benzie County and much of Northern Michigan beyond. For its 14th season under Laidlaw's leadership, Lakeside Shakes presents two of The Bard's most challenging plays in rotating repertory, The Merchant of Venice and Coriolanus. All performances are at Tank Hill in Frankfort. Street parking is available and picnics are encouraged. Frankfort is close to glorious Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore and Traverse City. Details: July 18-July28; free; LakesideShakespeare.org
Mason Street Warehouse, SaugatuckA regular summer feature of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts for years, the Mason Street Warehouse 2017 season includes Memphis the Musical ( set at the birth of rock 'n' roll ), Fully Committed ( a comedy about a trendy restaurant ) and It Shoulda Been You ( a musical concerning a wedding disaster ). Each show has a three-week run with a two-week gap between each show, so make sure to check the schedule. Saugatuck and nearby Douglas are twin beach towns long popular as summer holiday spots with Chicago's LGBT communities. They boast numerous galleries, excellent restaurants and a LOT of traffic, so plan carefully if you're going by car; the Mason Street Warehouse has very limited parking. Details: June 23-Sept. 3 ( mind the gaps ); $38-$46; MasonStreetWarehouse.org
Please remember to bring bug spray for outdoor venues and a warm garment against the chill night air, or sunblock at a matinee. Also note that prices above are for a full-price adult ticket. Many theaters offer discounts for seniors, students or children, and festival destinations offer money-saving multi-show passes. Theater websites are chock full of useful info on places to stay, places to eat and things to do.