You know how we’re all supposed to have a conversation on race at Starbuck’s? Here’s a hint: try listening instead of talking. That’s the lesson I drew from Rohina Malik’s exquisite and thoughtful play The Mecca Tales, receiving its world premiere at Chicago Dramatists. Five women of wildly different backgrounds and personalities go on the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all devout Muslims; and as they discover things they never knew about themselves, we [non-Muslims] discover things we never knew about Islam and the people who practice it. It’s amazing what just listening—to dialogue as carefully wrought as Malik’s—can do.
Nor is The Mecca Tales some After School Special of lessons learned about tolerance. Rather, it’s the personal stories of these women in all their glorious contradiction and complexity—just like those in The Canterbury Tales—which make us understand that what seems foreign is often as familiar as what we see in the mirror. Under the direction of Rachel Edwards Harvith, the entire cast presents three-dimensional portraits; but two actors must be singled out. Morgan McCabe as Grace, the tour leader of the group, maintains an extraordinary balance between authority and vulnerability, while Derek Garza, who plays all of the men in these women’s lives, gets to show off his protean character skills. Evocative music written and performed by Coren Warden underscores the evening with perfect delicacy. See this play! It runs through April 12 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 West Chicago Avenue in Chicago’s West Town.
The Hammer Trinity, The House Theatre. The stagecraft is so amazing in this three-play exegesis of the Arthurian legends that I couldn’t help but wish authors Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews hadn’t gotten so involved in text and subtext. What begins as an interesting twist on Camelot in Part I grows increasingly labored in Part II as the authors pile on inapplicable political content and finally falls of its own weight in Part III with fruitless speculation about the nature of storytelling itself. This is ironic because storytelling, using all the mechanisms of theater, is what The House is so good at, and its dragons, foxes and charging steeds do more than illustrate the story: they embody it. And there’s not a weak performance in the 18-person cast (under author Allen’s direction), with particular kudos to JJ Phillips as Wilke Forsbrand (who dislocated his shoulder in the line of duty during the opening marathon) and Chris Mathews, who stepped in for him and was utterly persuasive and impassioned notwithstanding book in hand. But we’d be better off with more illusion and less allusion. See Part I; maybe see Part II (not necessarily on the same day: as a wise teacher once remarked, “The mind can only absorb what the tush can endure”). Consider Part III a noble but failed attempt and leave it in peace. Through May 3 at the Chopin Theater, 1543 West Division in Chicago’s West Town.
First Wives Club, Broadway in Chicago. This show has everything going for it and still doesn’t work. The charming movie from which it came isn’t improved by the addition of music, even snippets of great Motown. And the new songs written by the Motown trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland are mostly not very well crafted for a Broadway score, though there are a few kick-ass exceptions: “I’m not that kind of girl,” a bump-and-grind for one of the bimbos, er, extra-marital females, and “Payback’s a bitch,” a celebratory stomp for our heroines. It’s no accident that these successful songs are connected to great production numbers: what the show needs is more, more, more of those. Broadway legend Faith Prince is wasted in the Bette Midler role, and Carmen Cusack and Christine Sherrill suffer by comparison with Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn (and who wouldn’t?). But their voices are exceptional, and when they blend it’s a moment of delight in an evening which badly needs more. Through March 29 at the Oriental Theater, 24 West Randolph in the Loop.
Anne of Green Gables, Provision Theater. This adaptation of THE BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK OF ALL TIME (not that I’m prejudiced) gets a lot right but falls down in its insistence on putting heavy-handed morals in most scenes. Provision works from a Christian perspective but it needn’t boldface its lessons, particularly when adapting a book with such deep-rooted and effortless demonstrations of the value of faith. And the decision to demonstrate Anne’s youth by having the actress speak in a squeaky voice is simply annoying. The show, for children 6 and up (some of them clutching dolls with red braids), runs through April 19 at 1001 West Roosevelt Road in Chicago’s University Village neighborhood.