The parks are green with overhanging trees, birds chirping, people all about, marking time till the opening of the Oak Park Festival Theatre’s outdoor season. This summer, three plays will be staged, starting with You Can’t Take it With You, opening this week in Austin Gardens.
While Festival’s mission is still “breathing fresh air into timeless texts for Oak Park and beyond,” the theater company also continues to evolve. Board President Anne Rooney says they’re building on this mission by reflecting on what is currently occurring in our society as well as in our community. Rooney, who brings experience in nonprofit management, became president in September after joining the board in February 2017.
“Theater should be universal,” said the 38-year Oak Park resident with a passion for the arts and longtime Festival patron. “It needs to reflect the community here and outside Oak Park, in age, diversity and culture. We are starting to do this on our board and are also doing things a little more experimental in our offerings.”
One such offering is The African Company Presents Richard III, a story about a 19th-century African American theater group’s staging of a Shakespeare play and the challenges they ultimately face. Based on a true story and penned by Carlyle Brown in 1989, this is a departure from the traditional Shakespeare stagings, written more than 400 years ago and put on nearly every summer by Oak Park Festival Theatre since it began in 1975. The African Company premieres July 28.
Daughters of Ire, beginning July 7, is a new play by Savanna Rae, an Oak Park Festival artistic associate who also performs in the one-woman play. Festival is partnering with Open Door Theater on this venture.
Barbara Zahora, the new interim artistic director who has been with the company since 2006, said she wants to provide “a fresh set of eyes that really loves this group and looks at each situation to recognize the heart in it.” Rae sees a strong feminist and has created a character who is not just a victim.
“Theaters can increase social justice themes and diversity, but we need to do it in a way that’s holistic,” said Zahora, who also acts and directs in Chicago theater and teaches at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. “We want to include more people without excluding.”
With inclusivity in mind, when the script for You Can’t Take it With You landed in the hands of freelance director Jason Gerace, he knew he needed to make the 1936 Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman collaboration relevant to 2018.
“I sat down and read it with fresh eyes,” said Gerace, who lives in Oak Park. “I couldn’t believe how funny it is and how relevant it is, but there are things that are a bit of an obstacle with race and position. We solved those issues through casting and script updates. We get to the soul of the play.”
The story still takes place in 1937, but Gerace believes theater-goers will “see it new” in the Festival production. The show is also family-friendly, and Gerace’s own children, ages 5 and 7, have laughed through rehearsals.
Zahora is in the cast, as is outgoing artistic director Jack Hickey, who held this position for 15 years.
“He’s been very generous, and I need all the expertise and wisdom he’s gained,” Zahora said. “The theater was almost facing bankruptcy and he’s brought it back. Now we can do things we want.”
The 2019 season, which Zahora developed with the board, will be announced on opening night of You Can’t Take it With You, this Saturday, June 16. The classics are still part of Festival’s fabric, but which stories they weave and put on will be interesting to see.
“You Can’t Take it With You” at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. Preview night, Thursday, June 14 ($10). Use promo code FAMILY for 50% off tickets for June 14. Friday, June 15 is sold out. Saturday, June 16, 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 17, 7 p.m., $32; $27, seniors; $15, students; free, children under 12 and dogs. Through July 22. Tickets/more: oakparkfestival.com, 708-300-9396.