The New Season: Revised ‘Hair’ in the wings, ATC adds radio ‘Wizard’ to ‘Wonderful Life’
Tenth in a series of season previews: After pairing “Doubt” and “Agnes of God,” American Theater Co. offers twin “radio” plays: “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Season opens Sept. 6.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Without a doubt, American Theater Co. has found wonderful life in the concept of repertory presentation of related plays. So for its 28th season, ATC will double down on the idea by pairing John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” with John Pielmeier’s “Agnes of God” and combining its traditional radio-play staging of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with “The Wizard of Oz.”
The new season also offers a revised version of the 2005 play “columbinus,” an exploration of the high school killing spree by two students in Littleton, CO, in 1999. The plays co-authors, Stephen Karam and ATC’s fifth-year artistic director PJ Paparelli, revisited Littleton on the 10th anniversary of the shooting, which left 12 students and one teacher dead, to get a fresh perspective.
Capping the season will be a 45th anniversary production of the musical “Hair” that returns to its beginnings off-Broadway, though with revisions and the inclusion of never before used material from author James Rado.
ATC opens with what Paparelli calls “the Catholic repertory” — “Doubt,” winner of both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best new play, about a nun who suspects a priest of molesting a young boy, and “Agnes of God,” about a convent novice who gives birth as the result of what she claims is divine conception.
“This is a presidential election year, which always brings the most important issues to the surface, and religion seems to be polarizing our country,” says Paparelli, who will direct both plays. “We wanted to offer these plays as a look into the core of any religion – the nature of faith, what it means to doubt one’s faith, what it means to trust and believe. These are big American issues right now that bring us all to common ground.”
Since both are one-act plays running about 90 minutes, patrons can catch them in one evening or in two visits to the theater. And ATC is offering them as a bargain package: Buy both and the second ticket is half price.
“We started doing repertory plays every other year, presenting two productions in dialogue with each other,” says Paparelli. “Repertory is a tradition that has fallen out of the modern-day theater producing canon. But our audiences have given us consistent feedback telling us they love this approach.”
The second combination – “the radio repertory” — augments Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” with L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” in a radio treatment of the beloved film setting with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. Both are full-length evenings, though ATC is offering the same buy-both ticket discount.
The season in brief:
- “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley (Sept. 6-Oct. 28): Set in the Bronx, New York City, in 1964, it’s the story of a Catholic school principal who becomes convinced that the admired parish priest has behaved inappropriately with a male student. Despite a lack of clear evidence, the nun insists that the priest is guilty. “‘Doubt really deals with the practical issues of something that might have happened, the kind of thing that actually does happen,” says Paparelli. “But did it happen? It asks the questions, what are people capable of and how much fact do you need to be certain beyond reasonable doubt?”
- “Agnes of God” by John Pielmeier (Sept. 6-Oct. 28): A court-appointed psychiatrist, a woman, wrangles with a convent’s mother superior about whether a novitiate — with a personal history of abuse by her own mother – has committed an unconscionable crime. The psychiatrist tries to determine whether the girl understands the reality of her act. (The title is a play on the Latin phrase Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God.) “The girl insists the conception of the child to which she has given birth was divine,” says Paparelli, “which sets up the question: Could this have happened? And if I can’t find another possibility, do I have no alternative but to believe it?”
- “It’s a Wonderful Life” (Nov. 15-Dec. 30): Capra’s 1946 film, based on Philip Van Doren’s 1939 story “The Greatest Gift,” follows the ever-compromised fortunes of George Bailey, who has big ideas about going to college and getting far away from the building and loan company to which his father has devoted his life. But when the wealthy and heartless banker Henry F. Potter finally gets the best of him, it’s left to his guardian angel to show George the real value of his life. “We were really thinking of killing ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” says Paparelli. “But here we are in its 11th year, and the audience is still growing.” Mike Nussbaum will play both the misanthrope Potter and the wizard in “Oz.”
- “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, adapted by Frank Gabrielson (Nov. 15-Dec. 30): It’s Dorothy and her pals skipping along the Yellow Brick Road — on the radio. “We’ve always thought of pairing another American story with ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ which offers a male perspective on what’s really important in life,” says Paparelli. “‘The Wizard of Oz’ affords a similar appreciation of the value of community from a female perspective. The Foley (sound) effects in ‘Wizard’ will be a huge challenge. It’s going to be great fun.” The production will include all the Arlen-Harburg songs from the 1939 MGM film.
- “columbinus” by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli (Revised version, Jan. 25-Feb. 24, 2013): The title refers to events at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, where two disaffected teenagers opened fire on classmates and teachers in 1999, killing 12 students and a teacher. This revised version of the play reflects new interviews from 10 years later that build on the authors’ conversations at the time with teens across the country and with survivors and community members in Littleton. Says Paparelli: “The narrative extends from a year before the shooting to the day of. What causes the kind of disenfranchisement those two boys felt? But the play doesn’t pretend to answer the question of why the shootings happened.”
- “Hair,” music by Galt MacDermot with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni (Restored and revised 45th anniversary production, April 26-June 16): This is not the Broadway version of the iconic ‘60s musical about love, peace, sex and drugs in a time of war, but a revision of the original, pre-Broadway show. “‘Hair’ is a reaction to Vietnam,” says Paparelli, who will direct. “It still raises the relevant question, ‘If you’re unhappy with society and government, what does it take to bring about change? This will be a very real and emotional, disturbing, violent and dangerous ‘Hair.’ We’re not trying to make it a hippie pageant.”
American Theater Co. is devoted to producing new and classic American stories that engage the issue of what it means to be an American. The theater’s 134-seat venue is a former warehouse located at 1909 W. Byron in the Northcenter neighborhood. It’s a five-minute walk from the L’s Irving Park station on the Brown Line.
- Performance details and ticket info: Go to ATCweb.org
- The company began as American Blues Theater: Read its history
- Review of American Theater Co.’s 2011-12 production of “Disgraced”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of the 2011-12 production of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of the 2011-12 production of “Rent”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of the 2011-12 production of “The Amish Project”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Tin Man poster for “The Wizard of Oz” by U.S. Lithograph Co., Russell-Morgan print, 1903. (Library of
Congress) Descending: Cover a 1968 London theater program for “Hair.” (Photo courtesy of michaelbutler.com) ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli. Playwright John Patrick Shanley. Playwright John Pielmeier. Actor Mike Nussbaum. Author L. Frank Baum. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on a security video at Columbine High School after they had killed several classmates in 1999. Composer Galt MacDermot. Below: Scene from ATC’s production of “Disgraced.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow) Scene from ATC’s production of “The Big Meal.” (Chris Plevin) Scene from the ATC-About Face production of “Rent.” (Michael Brosilow)