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Chicago theater 2014: In a year of hard losses, the shows went on—many of them spendidly

Writers Theatre's Hedda Gabler and The Dance of Death and a rawer, truer Hair were among our senior critic's favorites.

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Year In Review

Rough year, friends.

The Chicago theater community took hard losses in the late summer of 2014: a series of deaths, rendered more traumatic by the fact that most of them occurred over the course of just two weeks and took artists who were way too young to qualify. Actor Trinity P. Murdock died on August 27, a few months shy of his 40th birthday. Three days later it was 35-year-old prop artist Joe Lambie. Thirtysomething actor/playwright/lost-cause activist Sati Word succumbed on September 1 to what his GiveForward.com memorial-fund page called heart failure.

Labor Day weekend brought still more bad news. First we heard about Molly Glynn, whose performance helped make Tom Jones a high point of Northlight Theatre's season: the 46-year-old Chicagoan had been caught in a powerful storm while bicycling through a forest preserve with husband and fellow actor Joe Foust, a falling tree had hit her, and she'd died the next morning, Saturday, September 6. Fifty-year-old musical comedy veteran Bernie Yvon died in a car accident the same day, while heading to a rehearsal.

The response from comrades and colleagues was stunning. Social media overflowed with expressions of grief and generosity. Initially set up merely to defray funeral expenses, Glynn's GiveForward page raised more than $164,000.

As bad as I felt for them, I didn't actually know any of these people. The mourning only got personal for me two weeks later, on September 21, when Sheldon Patinkin died at 79, as he seemed to recover from a health scare.

Patinkin was the Zelig of Chicago theater. Like the title character of Woody Allen's 1983 movie, he managed to be in all the right places at all the right times, working with all the pivotal people. He was at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, for instance, when directorial genius Paul Sills wandered in to create shows for University Theatre. As a member of the Playwrights Theatre Club, he helped found the off-Loop movement. At the Second City he helped invent Chicago-style improv. He taught the early Steppenwolf Theatre members how to act like an ensemble. During his long tenure as chairman of Columbia College's theater department he educated untold numbers of artists and—just as important—supplied day jobs to untold numbers more. Everybody knew him and loved him, everybody was in his debt.

Including me. Over the course of many lunches at the Bagel on Broadway, I found Sheldon a natural mentor and a great gossip.

Through all of the above, the shows went on—in some cases splendidly. What follows, in chronological order, is a list of seven favorites, together with relevant quotes from my reviews of them. If I hadn't had to give so much space to death this year, I might've spent some on Cock at Profiles Theatre, The Humans at American Theater Company, Janet Ulrich Brooks in Timeline's The How and the Why, Michael Aaron Lindner in Chicago Shakespeare's Road Show, Joe Dempsey in Northlight's The Mousetrap, Tim Hopper in both Russian Transport and The Night Alive at Steppenwolf, the phenomena that are Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan and Second City ensemble member John Hartman, the House's Season on the Line, and Mary Zimmerman's magisterial The White Snake. Let's hope for better budgeting next time around.

Hedda Gabler at Writers Theatre: "Up there with—and maybe beyond—the best I've seen. . . . [Kate] Fry's Hedda is by turns a proto-Ayn Rand, a sexual obsessive out of an August Strindberg script, a small-time Borgia, a wry Beckettian fool."

The Dance of Death, also at Writers: Actors "Shannon Cochran and Larry Yando stop at nothing. . . . But the real revelation here may be Philip Earl Johnson's performance as Kurt. . . . The role requires Johnson to leave blood on the floor, and he quite literally, quite shockingly does."

Hair at American Theater Company: "Part of the rage of this rawer, truer Hair is knowing, from the vantage point of the present, what will likely become of these brave and frightening bohemians. . . . The economy will crash, the oligarchy will ascend, the political system will devolve, the environment will degrade, poverty will become permanent, war will become permanent—all while they watch. These kids were already dead and didn't know it, way back then."

Monstrous Regiment at Lifeline Theatre: Playwright Chris "Hainsworth has done a fine job of translating [Terry] Pratchett's amiable cynicism into sharp theatrical language. . . . But it's [Kevin] Theis's ensemble that bring even the undead to vivid, entertaining life."

The Qualms at Steppenwolf Theatre: "It's pretty delicious—and not in [playwright Bruce] Norris's typically cruel way. With The Qualms he begins to look like the most Wildean satirist maybe since Wilde, taking obvious pleasure not just in skewering social types and ideas but in treating them almost—almost—sympathetically, as manifestations of a flawed and very amusing humanity."

The Night Alive, also at Steppenwolf: "Ireland's bard of lost men . . . [Conor McPherson] makes masterful use of small gestures. . . . Masterful too are the members of the cast under Henry Wishcamper's direction."

The Wild Party, produced by Bailiwick Chicago: "Clearly, these folks take the 'wild' of the title as a sacred trust. . . . The show as a whole vibrates as fast and vertiginously as the heart of a cokehead."

Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre: "In Charles Newell's fierce, cold, beautiful (and, at 90 minutes, brief) staging from a translation by Nicholas Rudall, Mark L. Montgomery gives us an Agamemnon who's nothing more nor less than the wrong man for the job. We know he was bloodthirsty once—he killed to win Clytemnestra. Yet at this point he seems, well, just awfully middle-aged."

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