The New Season: Northlight’s latest adventure caroms from Guthrie’s America to a lonely bar
12th in a series of season previews: Life and songs of Woody Guthrie begin a far-flung trip that veers to Ireland and ends with world premiere of Bruce Graham’s “Stella & Lou.” Season opens Sept. 14.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Northlight Theatre director BJ Jones prides himself on leading patrons down far-ranging highways and byways, to places that may feel familiar and comfortable – and other destinations a long way from Kansas. The company’s 2012-13 season of five plays covers just such a map, from Ireland and the Civil War-torn South to Woody Guthrie’s vision of America and a world premiere in a shared orbit of loneliness.
“My key is that we’re a North Shore theater that reflects a diverse community,” says Jones. “So we like to offer a broad spectrum of work, from spicy international flavors to comfort food. We have a great audience. They never know what they’re going to see, or whether they will like it. But they go with us for the ride.”
Jones sees potential surprise in a season opener that may appear familiar on the surface: “Woody Sez,” a portrait of political activist and balladeer Woody Guthrie (1912-1967). The biographical drama unfolds through songs and stories tracing this icon of American folk and protest song from his Oklahoma roots through his legendary chronicling of the Dust Bowl era.
“This play celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man people tend to think of as a firebrand and rabble-rouser,” says Jones, “but what Woody Guthrie really cared about was unity and peace. He liked to say, ‘Left wing, chicken wing – I don’t care.’ He also had a sign on his guitar that said, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ I’m delighted to open our season with a look at the real Woody Guthrie at a time of political divisiveness in this country.”
The world premiere of “Stella & Lou” by Bruce Graham, the Philadelphia-born author of last season’s Northlight hit “The Outgoing Tide,” tops off the schedule in a bar where two bereft souls, a man and woman, reflect on their lives, the meaning of friendship and forgiveness and their shared need for companionship.
The 2012-13 season in brief:
- “Woody Sez” devised by David M. Lutken and Nick Corley, with Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein (Sept. 14-Oct. 21): Like the man whose life it honors, “Woody Sez” is a traveling show featuring four actor-musicians who sing and perform on 15 different instruments ranging from guitar and fiddle to jaw harp and dulcimer. Their narrative through some two dozen of Guthrie’s songs, together with anecdotes, extends to artists who came under his influence, like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. “These musicians bring a genuine authenticity to Woody’s legacy,” says Jones. “You get a real sense of how the songs of Woody Guthrie mirrored his time.”
- “The Odd Couple” by Neil Simon (Nov. 2-Dec. 9): This isn’t the 1970s television series condensed for the stage, but Simon’s original and more complex story that indeed centers on two guys – the slovenly Oscar and the fastidious Felix — thrown together when they’re thrown out by their wives. Jones, who directs the show, sees it as a raw commentary on America after World War II and Korea, when men can no longer dominate their wives. “It was a new dawn in the relationship between women and men,” he says. “It’s really about a world that had changed but these guys hadn’t changed with it. Sadly over the years, Neil Simon has gotten a musty feel, but he’s still the standard-bearer for well-made comedy in the 20th century.”
- “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez (Jan. 18-Feb. 14): At the close of the Civil War, a Jewish Southern officer returns home to face a changed relationship with two men who had been his slaves – and brought up Jewish. One of the slaves is old and has seen much, the other young and impulsive. All three men are concealing secrets beneath their brusque exteriors. “It’s Passover when the officer gets home, so we’re really dealing with layers of meaning, a clear similarity to the relationship between the Israelites and the Egyptians,” says Jones. “It’s an examination of morals, quite apart from issues of race, at a dawning of freedom and hope.”
- “Stones in His Pockets” by Marie Jones (March 9-April 14): When an American film company sets up production in a small Irish town, two ambitious lads see stardom in their future in this earthy tragi-comedy pitting Hollywood idealism against the plain truth of life on the Emerald Isle. Two male actors play 15 characters – women as well as men — whom they inhabit through a nonstop series of quick-changes. The title refers to one young man’s failure to make the hoped-for impression on the film crew. “It’s a wildly funny play with a central core of Irish sorrow,” says Jones. “The Irish do enjoy a good cry.”
- “Stella & Lou” by Bruce Graham (Northlight commission and world premiere, May 3-June 9): Set around the funeral of a habitué of the bar where the play takes place, this poignant encounter draws together a man and a woman both feeling lost to the world. As they revisit their checkered lives and kindred regrets, each reveals an aching need for a soulmate. “It’s a really touching piece, a small, simple story by a wonderful writer,” says Jones. “It’s about loneliness. Bruce delights at looking at little lives. He’s a master at telling our stories. They buzz with personal electricity.”
Northlight Theatre, founded in 1974, led a nomadic life until 1997 when the company settled into its present home, the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, a 342-seat theater located at 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie, IL. It’s just east of the Edens Expressway, across from Westfield Old Orchard shopping center.
- Biography of Woody Guthrie: Read in here
- Northlight season and ticket info: Find it here
- Review of the company’s 2011-12 production of “Ten Chimneys”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Balladeer Woody Guthrie with his guitar bearing its famous slogan, “This machine kills fascists.” Descending: Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones. Album cover for the Tradition LP “Woody Guthrie – The Early Years.” Playwright Neil Simon. Playwright Matthew Lopez. Playwright Marie Jones. Playwright Bruce Graham. Below: John Mahoney in a scene from Northlight’s 2011-12 production of Bruce Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide.” V Craig Heidenreich as Alfred Lunt and Lia Mortensen as Lynn Fontanne in Northlight’s 2011-12 production of “Ten Chimneys.” (Production photos by Michael Brosilow)