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Broadway's Tony Award nominations salute Chicago theater companies

Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Despite the receipt of the prestigious Tony Award for excellence in regional theater, there was no champagne on Navy Pier on Tuesday morning. Staffers seemed dazed by the unexpected news. Besides, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was already crammed full of school kids waiting for their promised Shakespeare.

"What other regional theater," pondered board chairman M. Hill Hammock, as he sipped some celebratory sparkling water in the crowded lobby, "is having a performance at 10 o'clock on a Tuesday morning?"

That palpable commitment to education and families goes a long way toward explaining why Chicago Shakespeare on Tuesday made Chicago the only city in the nation with four theatrical winners of the so-called Regional Tony, an institutional award announced each year in concert with the nominations for Broadway shows, and given only to theaters outside of New York.

In smaller cities, a theater winning a Regional Tony is often the occasion for ticker-tape parades. In Chicago, it is becoming almost a habit.

The Steppenwolf Theatre won in 1985, the Goodman Theatre in 1992 and Victory Gardens in 2001. But none of those institutions won on a day when a Broadway transfer of a born-in-Chicago show, Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," also cleaned up on many of the other available Tony nominations.

By any standards, Tuesday was an extraordinary day for the Chicago theater.

The Steppenwolf Theatre production of "August," still playing in New York, garnered an impressive seven Tony nominations, including best play (Letts), best director of a play (Anna D. Shapiro), best leading actress in a play (both Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton), best supporting actress in a play (Rondi Reed), best set (Todd Rosenthal) and best lighting design (Ann G. Wrightson).

Even veteran watchers of Chicago theater were struck by Steppenwolf's showing in the categories of leading actress and featured actress in a play. Along with Dunagan and Morton for leading actress and Reed for featured actress, two other Steppenwolf ensemble members were nominated for featured actress: Laurie Metcalf for David Mamet's "November" and Martha Plimpton for "Top Girls." That means half of the nominees in those two categories are Steppenwolf actresses.

"It's all just a great statement about the strength of the theater community in this city," said David Hawkanson, the executive director of Steppenwolf.

Any celebrations for "August" are on hold for the actual Tony Awards ceremony on June 15, at which the production is expected to win, and win big.

Tuesday belonged to Chicago Shakespeare.

The Regional Tony, which is accompanied by a cash award of $25,000 but is measured mostly in prestige, is an homage to the extraordinary rise to national prominence by an unashamedly populist theater that has always prized its off-Loop roots - and has always put both the Chicago actor and local audiences front and center.

"We're really shocked by this," said Barbara Gaines, the artistic director. "We just put our heads down and do our work."

The formal beginnings of Chicago Shakespeare Theater took place in the summer of 1986 on the roof of the Red Lion Pub, 2446 N. Lincoln Ave. The first show, Gaines' $3,000 production of "Henry V," was an Actors' Equity showcase for which no one got paid and that had to compete with the clink of pint glasses and the "L" tracks nearby. In 1987, Gaines moved her fledgling company to the more suitable Ruth Page Theater on the Gold Coast and renamed the troupe the Chicago Shakespeare Repertory Company. The first production was "Troilus and Cressida." And from there, Chicago Shakespeare began a period of long and steady growth.

The next big milestone came in 1997 with the announcement that Shakespeare Repertory would take up residence on a redesigned Navy Pier. Two years later, the newly named Chicago Shakespeare Theater opened up in a glistening facility with arguably the best lobby views of any theater in the nation.

Many thought Chicago Shakespeare would struggle to persuade its core, local audience to come to the tourist-oriented pier, especially in the dead of winter. But Chicago Shakespeare proved the naysayers wrong.

Since its move to the pier, Chicago Shakespeare has continued its main season of Shakespeare, while taking advantage of its location to expand family and children's programming. It has become a major presenter of international theater groups. And it has weighed in on musicals. After his critically acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures" on the pier, associate artistic director Gary Griffin was catapulted to a Broadway career.

Throughout all this change, Gaines' aesthetic philosophy has eschewed elitism and avant-garde theatrics in favor of clear, direct storytelling that makes Shakespeare accessible to a broad, popular audience and has proven very popular in no-nonsense Chicago, where the Bard for some is not a natural taste. Its current production of "The Comedy of Errors" is a perfect example, combining Shakespearean text with a jocular outer frame penned by Second City veteran Ron West.

Executive director Criss Henderson, Gaines' longtime partner and the prime architect of all of this growth, said that the award doesn't represent a cap on anything.

"We have a company of Chicago artists here who can do more and want to do more," Henderson said on Tuesday, speaking also of his pride in being recognized alongside Steppenwolf.

Chicago Shakespeare has already made public its desire for a new, 900-seat proscenium theater on Navy Pier, which would allow the company to expand both international and family offerings. This award will surely help it make its case.

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