Festival Theatre needs more Arthur Miller

Opinion

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KEN TRAINOR

Outdoor theater in Austin Gardens is over for another summer. Festival Theatre continues to hobble forward, hamstrung by a lack of funds and a stubborn refusal to get creative with their ticket pricing. But this year, they did one thing right: They offered options.

Instead of Shakespeare only, Festival offered Megan Wells' enchanting storytelling/drama, Gods of Love, based on Greek mythology, on Wednesday nights and on Mondays and Tuesdays, they produced Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

They also, of course, played the bard, but Shakespeare was so-so (Comedy of Errors, very lightweight and not terribly funny). The other two productions, however, were quite good.

Wells is a real talent, and I hope Festival finds a way to keep her coming back. But when I attended the Arthur Miller play last week on the final night of its run, I began to see some hope for Festival's fragile future.

Frankly, Festival got lucky. Local actor Lanny Lutz, who serves on the Festival Theatre board, seems to have been born to play Arthur Miller protagonists. He was perfect for the role of Joe Keller in All My Sons, and he would be perfect in the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Festival on to something here, and I hope they recognize it. Next month, the board will be getting together to figure out what plays to put on next summer. Waiting for Godot was one possibility I heard mentioned, but if I can offer the board one piece of advice it would be this: Don't do it.

Theaters like to produce Godot because it has a small cast and a spare set, two elements obviously attractive to a company like Festival with very little extra cash. But the play is a virtual cliche?#34;overexposed and overrated.

Resist the temptation, be more ambitious, and stick with Arthur Miller.

In fact, stick with classic American theater. Shakespeare is great, but plenty of venues offer summer Shakespeare. Festival has a chance to make a name for itself by specializing in distinctly American plays.

Death of a Salesman would be a terrific choice for next summer, largely because of Lutz's availability, but also because Arthur Miller died earlier this year and there's a revival of interest in his work.

Miller's plays are hard-hitting, thoroughly examining the underside of the American character and the American dream, which is precisely what Americans need in this era when many, if not most citizens are living in a bubble of denial.

As Julia Keller wrote recently in the Chicago Tribune, "We need an Arthur Miller ...writers willing to rile up the whole world on behalf of fiercely held convictions."

After Death of a Salesman, why not The Crucible? Then expand to other American playwrights: Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Lorraine Hannsberry's A Raisin in the Sun, August Wilson, Thornton Wilder, Willam Inge, and a host of others who explore the national character.

Maybe Shakespeare should take a hiatus. People who have an appetite for the bard are most likely satisfying it at Navy Pier. Festival can't compete with Barbara Gaines' creative, talented, well-financed company. The Oak Park group has been getting by for three years now with low overhead and stripped-down sets. This year they got bolder with three offerings. A good start. Don't stop now. You're on to something.

I believe Americans are primed and ready for a national re-examination. Who are we and what do we really stand for? Classic American theater that examines our fundamental values and ideals and how we strive for them and/or stray from them would be just the ticket.

That and getting more flexible with their ticket prices.

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