"Greater Illinois" at TheatreWorks@TheSquare – A Reflection on Utopia, Displacement, and Resilience

The curtains have closed on "Greater Illinois," but the echoes of its powerful narrative continue to resonate within the hearts of those who were fortunate enough to witness this groundbreaking production.

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In the hands of two talented Black women directors, "Greater Illinois" transcended its written limitations to become a testament to the power of inclusive storytelling and artistic courage. The production entertained and also challenged its audience to consider the deeper implications of our societal structures and the ongoing struggle for equality and justice.

In this AUDicle:

  • A Thought-Provoking Narrative
  • Staging and Direction Excellence
  • Dynamic Performances and Memorable Moments
  • A Tasteful Blend of Humor and Drama
  • Reflecting on the Production's Impact
  • Conclusion: A Testament to Artistic Courage and Innovation

The curtains have closed on "Greater Illinois," but the echoes of its powerful narrative continue to resonate with those who were fortunate enough to witness this groundbreaking production. Despite our initial reservations about the thematic direction the play might take, we found ourselves engrossed in a psychological thriller that skillfully navigated the complexities of a dystopian world, drawing striking parallels to pre-civil rights times interwoven with the harrowing concept and reality of concentration camps. For this to be a competition winner, it was awesome.

A Thought-Provoking Narrative

Steven Strafford's "Greater Illinois" stands out as a poignant exploration of intersectionality and the mechanisms of oppression. While the script maintained a predominantly white lens, lacking in dialect choices that resonate deeply with Black culture, the execution by directors Claire D. Kolheim and Jessica "Jai" Johnson transcended these limitations, creating an atmosphere of suspense and deep reflection.

Staging and Direction Excellence

Chris Sterling's minimal yet evocative set design, combined with Claire's direction, facilitated a seamless transition between two parallel worlds, emphasizing the narrative's central themes of gentrification and displacement. We enjoyed seeing performers weave in and out of scenes. It was so creative how this was approached. You could walk into a room, and suddenly, everything changed. It was very tasteful.

There's a new Black costumer designer in the area, Caelan D. Ingram, and he has a fun eye. Things got a bit "Shaft" after the death of Evan. The leather choice was a bit comical at first, but suddenly it worked when we get Donielle back in her house (that we find out has been taken by the Greater IL Council after murdering her husband and is now being occupied by Patrick, held hostage by Ben and his estranged mother).

This production bravely tackled the nuanced discussion around gentrification, distinguishing between the benefits of neighborhood enhancement and the detrimental effects of displacement, as vividly depicted through the lives of the characters on stage. This show GOES THERE in a way that only Playhouse has been brave enough to approach.

Dynamic Performances and Memorable Moments

The cast delivered performances that were both compelling and nuanced, particularly highlighting the stellar portrayals by Marc Gill and Facia Lee as Evan and Donielle. Their love and resilience set a powerful tone for the narrative, making the audience instantly invested in their journey. The exploration of an interracial queer couple's plight, portrayed by Daniel Stuart Nelson and John Michael, added depth to the discourse on identity and belonging, with Nelson's role as Patrick and John Michael as Mac being a highlight of the production.

Marc Gill as "Evan" and Facia Lee as "Donielle"

Everyone knows how solid veteran performer Marc Gill is, but seeing him exercise his chops on a unique character was so rewarding. He was a man that was not fighting to be "the man of the house." We see this beautiful Black man be supportive and enduring as he honors and respects his Black wife...until he doesn't. The betrayal is subtle and lethal, literally leading to his untimely tragic murder. Marc Gill weaves all of the fun and energy we fall in love with during the show and translates it into a eulogy that confesses his mistakes and comforts his widow in the most heartfelt monologue. His apologies were rich with substance. The tears, the impact, the regret and disdain for being disobedient are heartbreaking. Now, we suggests Marc write a no-kill clause in his contracts for the remainder of the year, but whew, this was so dynamic and touching to watch. Marc Gill is versatile and never gives you the same character twice. Evan was special. We missed him once he was gone.

Facia Lee drives this production from start to finish with her presence and commanding power. She never plays her angry or even irritated. This character just stands on business! It was so refreshing (there's that word again) to watch someone make different choices. As humans, especially Black people, we are not a monolith. This production captured that so well.

Vicky Moore portrays Wanda, Evan's mom. She is spunky, fun, and a bit air headed. It was the comedic relief we needed and could relate to as she insisted on her annoying "mom" tactics.

John Michael as "Mac" and Daniel Stuart Nelson as "Patrick"

John Michael gave such a dynamic performance for this being our first time seeing him on stage in a straight play. He did a phenomenal job of being present without coming off ghostly, distracting, or annoying. He plays his fickle husband's self-centered consciousness and he insists on letting him know his woes and how "I am a version of you that works for you." Whew. This dynamic said sooooo much. I was so proud of this performance. John Michael hones in on his power and executes it with great conviction. It was absolutely necessary and he ate it.

Other dynamic performances were held by the world's best villain Lorraine Cotton, who portrayed the insatiable Attendant (Helen Pierce). Lorraine is a force on stage and if you like to fight for your objective, this is who you want to be in the ring with. Her bite and timing are intimidating and aggressive in a way that could only be attributed to a Karen. Now, knowing Lorraine, she's no Karen. She is supported by her intolerable, stomach turning son, Ben, portrayed by Smith McWaters. Hats off to Smith because to play a sinister, perverted, closeted, sex abuser is no easy feat.

Daniel Stuart Nelson is excellent in this piece and we are sure we will hear more about his portrayal of Patrick during awards season.

A Tasteful Blend of Humor and Drama

"Greater Illinois" masterfully balanced humor with the gravity of its themes, presenting a narrative reminiscent of a great debate where each character passionately advocated for their right to freedom, respect, and existence. The production's ability to maintain suspense, coupled with strategic uses of lighting and costume design, enhanced the storytelling, making each scene a discovery.

Reflecting on the Production's Impact

As the story unfolded, revealing the forced displacement of its characters and their struggles against an oppressive regime, we were reminded of the ongoing battles against gentrification and systemic injustice in our own communities. The production's poignant commentary on these issues, paired with its exploration of love, loyalty, and betrayal, underscored the importance of understanding, unity, and resistance in the face of adversity.

Conclusion: A Testament to Artistic Courage and Innovation

Though "Greater Illinois" may have concluded its run, its impact lingers, serving as a reminder of the transformative potential of theater to address, reflect, and challenge the pressing issues of our time. This production will undoubtedly be remembered as a significant contribution to the discourse on race, identity, and community, marking a notable moment in the history of Playhouse on the Square.


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