Welcome to TimeLine’s 18th season! We’re thrilled to share a new collection of plays with you—all new to Chicago.
Tonight we open the Chicago premiere of Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s beloved novel My Name is Asher Lev. And once again we’re performing at Stage 773, outside our home on Wellington Avenue so that we can expand our audience, making it easier for you to experience our work and introduce TimeLine to others.
It also allows us to do two shows at once! A few blocks away on Wellington this fall, you’ll be able to see Dominic Orlando’s Danny Casolaro Died for You (September 23 – December 21). Then later this winter we have the theatrical event of two of Richard Nelson’s acclaimed Apple Family Plays (performed separately on alternating nights), followed in the spring by Michele Lowe’s Inana
But first, My Name is Asher Lev.
While a work of fiction, the story is rooted in Potok’s personal experiences and the history and culture of Hasidism in Brooklyn after World War II. We follow the journey of young Asher’s artistic evolution, torn between his religious upbringing and his aspiration to be a painter. The play unquestionably examines the intersection of faith and artistry. But it’s also about the struggles we face to find our life’s calling, especially when that pursuit clashes with our family, culture or heritage.
Whether your own bold venture includes questioning your faith, sexuality, political ideology, family trade, or the community in which you were raised—you’ll find a kindred spirit in Asher as he courageously forges his own path.
Although Asher’s paintings play an enormous role in the story, the script specifically asks that his work remain in your imagination, to empower you to envision Asher’s artistic style for yourself. (For those who wish to dig deeper, an internet search will lead you to the art of Chaim Potok, himself a painter who created images similar to some mentioned in the play.)
Potok—an artist in many respects and fields—fashioned a distinguished career as a novelist during the later 20th Century with work that often grappled with young Orthodox Jewish characters trying to assimilate into modern America. More recently his writing has transformed eloquently to the stage thanks to playwright Aaron Posner, who also adapted the much-lauded The Chosen.
We enthusiastically welcome back one of our favorite collaborators, Kimberly Senior, just before she makes her Broadway debut directing the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced by Ayad Akthar. When I first mentioned My Name is Asher Lev to her, I knew immediately that we’d found the perfect match. She exclaimed over the phone her deep love for the novel, noting that the pages of her paperback are marked with tears from first reading it years ago.
Kimberly and her team of designers have created a canvas on stage that can be as transformative as that of Asher’s, complemented by three musicians fusing Andrew Hansen’s compositions into this moving story.
I hope you will join us at Stage 773, and I look forward to our conversations throughout 2014-15.
As we’ve shared over the past few years, TimeLine has been outgrowing our home at 615 W. Wellington Avenue. For the past four seasons, we have performed one play each year at an alternate venue to accommodate rapidly growing audiences (our 18th season opener My Name is Asher Lev opens at Stage 773 this week!).
In our 2014-2017 Strategic Plan, our Board of Directors, Company and Staff committed to a goal of obtaining a new facility that can support more robust production and educational programming—while retaining the intimacy and flexibility we love about our current space that has been integral to our work and connection with our audience.
Recently, TimeLine was approached by an admirer and fan of our company, Howard Weiner of Chicago Development Partners, LLC (CDP). Mr. Weiner sees TimeLine as an ideal partner for his vision of a mixed-use project that preserves the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School building in the Andersonville neighborhood through an innovative combination of arts and residential components.
The opportunity to help bring new life to a historic building aligns with our mission of presenting stories inspired by history that connect to today’s social and political issues. We are working with Mr. Weiner and CDP as they take the leadership role in pursuing the project.
CDP’s proposal for Trumbull School is one of several submitted to Alderman Patrick O’Connor for public review and input over the next several weeks. For further information and to see the several proposals submitted to Alderman O’Connor, click here.
The selection process will not be completed for several months. In the meantime, our Board of Directors, Staff and Company will continue the due diligence of examining all elements of securing a future home for TimeLine, including finances, timeframe, and engagement with the community. We are happy to continue to make our home at the Wellington Avenue Church building at 615 W. Wellington Avenue.
Everyone at TimeLine is so grateful for the steadfast support of the countless donors, subscribers, audience members, artists and friends who have been a part of our journey these past 17 seasons. We’ll continue to share plans for the future as they unfold.
During rehearsals for My Name is Asher Lev, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) spoke with actor and TimeLine Associate Artist Alex Weisman (AW) about his experience portraying the title character.
(PJP) How familiar were you with Chaim Potok’s novel before auditioning for the show?
(AW) I wasn’t! I had heard of the play before I knew it was based on a novel. I remember reading about the New York production, but not being familiar with the book. The Chosen, I knew.
(PJP) What has the book meant to you in your preparation and process to play Asher?
(AW) The book hasn’t left my side in two months. I once had a teacher who told me that the best thing an actor can do to learn about character study is to read a novel in first-person narrative. It’s the medium that allows us the most insight into a character’s motivation, intention, and (literally) inner thoughts. So to have this resource available to me for Asher Lev was essential, it was like an appendage of inspiration.
Before even touching the play, I read the book. Aaron Posner’s adaptation is extremely successful, but in order to create a concise evening, pieces of the story had to be left out. Fortunately, we have all of that in the novel, so relationships can be deeper, stakes can be higher, and the circumstances can be clearer when working on this character.
(PJP) How are you similar or dissimilar from Asher?
(AW) Well, just looking at the basics, Asher is a Hasidic visual artist, and I’m a VERY reformed Jewish actor. My faith and my art have, until this process, seemed to never overlap. In The History Boys I played a Jew, but that served dramaturgically to make my character Posner more of an outsider. Here, Asher’s faith plants him firmly in his community.
Ultimately, I think the play is about identity and questioning our identity, and I’ve certainly done that in my life.
Trying to figure out who we are, or as Asher says, “Who I’m supposed to be, what I’m supposed to become.” As an actor, there is that moment where someone says to you, “If you can do anything else, you should do that other thing, because this business is hard.” That’s what the character Jacob Kahn, and even Anna Schaeffer, do for Asher in the play. I thought of that question a lot when I was applying for college and deciding whether or not to study theater. There was a moment when I said, “This is who I am. I am an actor.” Asher has to answer the same question.
The end of a season at TimeLine brings about some natural reflection. The similarities between the first play of our season, A Raisin in the Son, and the last, Juno, are not lost on me. Both feature a fierce matriarch holding a family together, a headstrong daughter, a wayward son, and a possible change of life because of money. They are of course also about politics, hate, fear—and family. The Normal Heart and The How and the Why are also about those family connections, whether it is the family we choose or the science of genetics we hope will explain our similarities and our differences.
It is the family connection that most interests me. During our first production meeting for Juno, I found we were all mentioning that we are of Irish decent. I think this tendency to claim our countries of origin is very American. We are a country of people who either picked up and left or were forced to leave, so there is some part of us that is always looking back, hoping to trace those threads for some explanation of who we are now. This is similar to our mission at TimeLine.
On a very personal level I thought I might dig into my genealogy and see if I could find out more about my Irish ancestors. I am a dramaturg after all; research is part of my métier so, cockily, I set out to find my Irish ancestors.
My first call was to my Mom, keeper of our family albums.
The family lore always held that we were Irish who fled to Canada, then immigrated into the United States as Canadians. From her I got the following details: My great great great great grandfather John Hanna was born in Ireland (no city) in about 1794. He married a woman named Mary and at some point left Ireland. One of their children, my great great great grandfather Joseph Hannah (note the spelling change) was born in May 1835 in Upper Canada. Joseph Hannah married a woman named Samilda (that’s promising for research because it is unique).
I thought I’d first try online searches without the aid of any paid genealogy sites. I found a post in a free forum for someone looking for a John Hanna born in Ireland circa 1794 who married Mary. They seemed to have some sons born in Kilkeel, County Down, Ireland in 1818 and 1822; two others were born in 1825 and 1826 in Canada—all earlier than my ancestor Joseph. Someone had answered her query that there were no hits in search records in Kilkeel in County Down. They mentioned that records for Protestants are scarce. This was new to me. We always believed our ancestors were Catholic. However, Kilkeel is in Northern Ireland, which makes a Scots Irish ancestor more likely.
Now I had to question my other received knowledge. We believed they were Irish Potato Famine refugees, so I checked the dates. The Potato Famine occurred roughly between 1845-1852, so moving to Canada also seems early for the famine. Many Scots Irish immigrated to the United States in the 1700s, but that seems a bit early for my ancestors. There were bad harvests in 1815 and 1816, followed by a typhus epidemic from 1817-1819—were they avoiding that? Perhaps they were trailblazers, or a younger son without land, or just in search of something different. One source I found said it was half the price to sail to Canada rather than the United States. Is that why they went to Canada? So far I have more questions than answers.
I decided to register for a trial of a genealogy site. Fortunately my sister had used the same site and I was able to look at the family tree she had created. I was thrilled by the discovery of a photo of Joseph Hannah, but my sister’s efforts hit a dead-end with John Hanna born in Ireland. I used the site’s search engines and could find the family in later U.S. Censuses listing the country of origin as Ireland and the age, but again no Irish records appeared.
In desperation I tried Hanna and Kilkeel. This was assuming that woman and I had the same ancestor; which seemed plausible. I discovered that there is a “Hanna’s Close” in Kilkeel named after a family that emigrated from Scotland and settled near the Mournes mountains in County Down. An image search of the area turns up charming whitewashed cottages with colorful doors and low stone walls. A search of a Kilkeel history website turned up stacks of Hannas, both Catholic and Presbyterian. Most of the dates are much later than my John Hanna and it gave me the sinking feeling that there are a lot of John Hannas and I’d probably have to go to County Down to look.
I will keep digging into this history, because I like a good mystery. I had emailed the woman on the genealogy list and she emailed me back to let me know she had let her hunt slide for the time being. I emailed another contact on an Irish history site focused on the Mournes and have yet to hear back.
I think about about what it means that my search feels vague and full of dead ends and a lack of information. Names change or are misspelled, a census worker has terrible handwriting, a fire happens at a county clerk’s office and suddenly those connections become tenuous. But at this past Sunday’s performance of Juno, I took a white pin and put it in our lobby map of Ireland at County Down. It is a start.
In thinking about Juno again, my thoughts turned to the complexity of families. What name would a child born to the Mary in the play have? What if helpful neighbors misdirected census worker away from the Boyle’s home? How muddy would the Boyle family tree be? Our pasts, our families, our present are all messy, which is why we look for opportunities to understand.
This has me thinking ahead. There are all sorts of families. My TimeLine family is getting ready for The Apple Family Plays next season. Those plays will focus on that ordinary time in most families when gathering, bickering, eating and talking politics are inextricably linked. The Apple Family Plays (That Hopey Changey Thing and Sorry) will feature more TimeLine Company Members than have ever appeared on stage together. These are friends I have worked with, celebrated with and mourned with and I am looking forward to the messiness of this family gathering as the natural balance to looking at the past.
During rehearsals, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) conducted this interview with Juno star Marya Grandy (MG), who portrays the title character in TimeLine’s production of the musical. An edited version of their conversation appears in the Juno Backstory.
(PJP) Where’d you grow up?
(MG) It’s funny—I get asked that question a lot, and I have yet to come up with a consistent response. I lived in Los Angeles until I was about 14, and then my parents, who had recently divorced, each moved across the country. My father split his time between Washington, D.C., and Sioux City, Iowa, and my mother settled in Cambridge, Mass. So I made the decision to go to boarding school in New Hampshire, followed by college in Connecticut, and then the big move to New York to make my fame and fortune as an actor. So, the short answer is that I am a geographical mutt, which actually ended up being extremely helpful in preparing me for the itinerant lifestyle of an actor.
(PJP) Acting runs in your family, correct? Was performing a big part of your childhood or did you come to it later? When did you know you wanted to make performing your life’s work?
(MG) Yes, and it definitely influenced me. I loved watching rehearsals, and helping my dad run lines. Everything about performing spoke to me. My parents love to tell the story of when they were doing summer stock at the Dorset Playhouse when I was about 2 or 3, and apparently on one of their breaks during tech, I strode on to the stage and belted out “Yankee Doodle.” I have no memory of this, but I also cannot remember ever having wanted to do anything else. Also, and this is true of many actors, I was a really shy, awkward kid, and I did not have many friends. Performing allowed me to escape and express myself in ways I never could in my real life.
(PJP) You spent many years in New York. What are your memories of that city and what do you consider highlights of your time and work there?
(MG) I love New York. There is nowhere else on earth that has that kinetic, nonstop energy, and it’s incredibly invigorating.
It will sound a bit odd, but my strongest memories are of how kind the people of New York are. It is a very aggressive kindness, and it is often unsolicited, but it is unfiltered and genuine.
My two favorite examples are when my husband Matt and I ran the New York Marathon, and the sheer number of people on the sidelines cheering the runners on was completely overwhelming. There was so much goodwill in the air, it was palpable.
The other example, strangely enough, was during the days immediately following September 11, 2001. Matt and I saw the towers fall from our apartment in Brooklyn, and we spent the rest of the day wandering through our neighborhood, picking up burnt pieces of paper and hugging strangers, and there was such a strong sense of community, it makes me cry to think about it even now.
Professionally, I’d have to say getting to create the role of Lin in The Great American Trailer Park Musical Off-Broadway was one of the highlights of my time in New York. I had been friends with David Nehls (the composer) for years, and to get to share that experience with him, to say nothing of being part of an original musical from the ground up, was absolutely thrilling. There was a two-story billboard in midtown Manhattan with my face on it, which I still haven’t recovered from, and we recorded a cast album, which was something I had always wanted to do.
Then, in the fall of 2012 I got to join the cast of the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway revival of Maltby & Shire’s Closer Than Ever, with Richard Maltby directing, and that was absolutely incredible. Their songs are so smart, so witty and so poignant, and it was such an honor to sing them every night.
(PJP) Why did you make the move recently from New York to Chicago?
(MG) I have always loved Chicago, and as a matter of fact, I was born here. My mom grew up in Barrington, so I have had a lifelong connection. In 2009 I was rehearsing a show in Chicago, and the more I talked to people in the theatre community, the more excited I got about the sort of work that was happening here, so in 2011 we made the leap!
Marc Blitzstein’s music is gorgeous, and challenging, and serves the story … There’s nothing musically extraneous, and each song either forwards the plot or fleshes out the character.
(PJP) What’s been your impression of the Chicago theatre community so far?
(MG) It is incredible. First of all, just the amount of theatre that takes place here is staggering. I think we’ve seen more shows in the three years since we moved to Chicago than we did in the 10 years prior in New York.
And then there is the talent. Holy. Cow. The performances I’ve seen both as an audience member and when I’ve been in shows is as good if not better than anything I’ve seen anywhere. The attention to detail, the level of commitment, and the way Chicago actors connect with their audiences and their fellow cast members just blows me away. They also happen to be some of the smartest, funniest, and most generous people I’ve ever met. It’s humbling.
(PJP) Did you have any knowledge of the musical Juno before this? I’m guessing you’d never seen it on stage, but was curious how well you knew any of the music or the story?
(MG) It was always a bit on my radar, because I sing “I Wish It So” when I do concerts, but I didn’t really know much about the show itself, other than it being an adaptation of the O’Casey play. I’ve never heard the cast recording, and I’ve never seen Juno and the Paycock on stage, so it’s been great to discover it.
(PJP) What touches you most about the story of Juno Boyle and her family?
(MG) I think Juno loves her family, but she is very tunnel-visioned with regard to her own survival, so she doesn’t really know her family, and it’s particularly poignant where her children are concerned. Missed connections break my heart, and this show is full of them.
(PJP) One of the knocks against Juno in 1959 was that Shirley Booth who originated your role wasn’t really a singer, and she mostly talked her way through the songs, thereby begging the question “So why not just do the play Juno and the Paycock?” But with you, we’ve got not only an actress but also a singer, and I’m curious to hear how you feel the songs impact the original material?
(MG) First of all, thank you for the compliment. You can’t see me, but I am blushing to the roots of my hair.
Secondly, Marc Blitzstein’s music is gorgeous, and challenging, and serves the story. I feel like when musicals are at their best, it is because the writers know where to put the songs, when spoken words will no longer suffice, and Juno does that beautifully. There’s nothing musically extraneous, and each song either forwards the plot or fleshes out the character. It helps tremendously that the text of the play is also lyrical and lovely, and informs the songs, which is rare.
(PJP) Has it been helpful for you to look back at O’Casey’s script for Juno and the Paycock as you work on the character of Juno Boyle?
(MG) Absolutely. The character of Juno is prickly, and not always sympathetic, so the challenge for me has been finding her humanity, finding her warmth, and finding her humor, without losing any of her backbone. You don’t want to have a lack of compassion for the title character, but you don’t want her to be a doormat, either, and director Nick Bowling and I have been having some great discussions about finding a balance.
(PJP) The design for Juno puts the audience inside the Boyle home, essentially surrounding you when you’re on stage. What’s it like working on a show that is so intimately staged?
(MG) I love it. With Juno, which is essentially about a family, it is so important to have everything fine-tuned with regard to the inner workings of that family, whether it’s with stolen glances, a raised eyebrow, or how someone pours a cup of tea. Subtlety like that is very hard to convey in an 800-seat house. The set design essentially turns the audience into another member of the Boyle family, and I think it will be really powerful. Plus, I am over the moon at not having to wear a body mic.
(PJP) Any role you’re dying to take on after this?
(MG) Well, immediately after Juno I go into rehearsals for On the Town at the Marriott, and I’ll be playing Hildy, which is a role I have wanted to do forever. David Bell has written a beautiful new show about Fanny Brice that we have done productions of at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and Asolo Rep in Florida, and that we’re trying to get produced in Chicago. I’d also love to sink my teeth into the role of Fosca in Passion. For the time being, though, I am so grateful to be working on Juno. I can’t thank you and Nick enough for bringing me on board. Here’s to making you proud!
TimeLine is thrilled to bring the musical Juno to Chicago audiences for the first time.
Based on the 1924 Sean O’Casey classic Juno and the Paycock, this musical was originally produced on Broadway in 1959. It closed after just 16 performances, never approaching the acclaim enjoyed by two other classic plays turned into musicals during that era, My Fair Lady and West Side Story.
Since then, the show has lived mostly in obscurity, although music theater aficionados have long loved the recording of Marc Blitzstein’s score and long desired to hear it live. The estate for book writer Joseph Stein confirmed that it has never had a production in Chicago, until now.
Why didn’t it work and why has it taken so long to be seen in Chicago? I honestly can’t say. Some have argued that Blitzstein’s musicality was ahead of its time for 1950s Broadway fare. Others wondered why O’Casey’s great play needed music at all—an argument exacerbated by two original leads who were stronger actors than singers. And many feel that the piece’s darker themes made it too grim an affair, despite the inherent humor laced throughout.
You’ll recognize in this show a quintessential trait of the Irish culture—the lyrical balance of pain and laughter.
TimeLine’s Company Members have talked of producing Juno dating back to our last (also our first) musical, Fiorello!—another under-appreciated 1959 gem that found a huge audience during sold-out runs at our theatre in 2006 and 2008. Many of you have asked frequently when TimeLine would mount another musical, and while it’s taken longer than we’d hoped, there was never a question that it would be Juno.
One of this Irish boy’s greatest theatre-going memories is the 1994 production of Juno and the Paycock by Dublin’s Gate Theatre, brought to the Merle Reskin Theatre through the late, great International Theatre Festival of Chicago. Still a student at The Theatre School at DePaul University, I was an usher for that production, savoring each moment of every performance. I marveled at the depth of the Irish actors who could seamlessly walk the perilous line between comedy and tragedy, often within the same line, phrase or gesture. That ability is what makes this story—in play or musical format—so fiendishly tricky, yet so gloriously effective. For anyone who has had the pleasure of spending time in Ireland, you’ll recognize in this show a quintessential trait of the culture—the lyrical balance of pain and laughter.
The Juno design team has crafted an immersive setting that surrounds you with 1920s Dublin, and the intimacy of TimeLine’s home is a key element helping us bring the humor and heartache of the Boyle family to life.
It’s a story and a staging that we hope is the perfect cap to a 2013-14 season you have helped make one of TimeLine’s most memorable. I thank you for making this year so special and I hope you will join us to experience the beauty of Juno.
Dr. Julie Robinson is the Chief Scientist for the International Space Station. She is also my sister. While working on The How and the Why, which examines not only questions about science and gender but also inheritance and family, I took the opportunity to interview my sister about some of the issues raised by the play. You may also notice that we included Julie in the Women of Science exhibit on display in TimeLine’s lobby during the run of The How and the Why.
Maren Robinson (MR): Describe the sort of work you do for NASA.
Julie Robinson (JR): As Space Station Chief Scientist, I serve as the representative of all the scientists who use the laboratory within the large engineering organization that built and operates it. I advise on science strategy and help to de-conflict competing science investigations by working with the selecting and funding organizations to set priorities for each 6-month period. I get to work with hundreds of scientists in almost every discipline, and with my international counterparts in Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.
MR: The play uses an Ernst Mayr quote about scientific problems being explainable in two ways, the how and the why. So how and why did you become a scientist?
JR: I think being a scientist was always in my nature. I do pass through life wondering about how things work and why. I gave up other electives in high school so I could take essentially every science class they offered—that is the “why.” For the “how” I started on a very traditional path, two undergraduate degrees in Biology and Chemistry and a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, then a post-doc. Then I was a scientist. After that, I veered into uncharted territory leading to becoming the chief scientist for the space station. I had started working with NASA data to make ecological maps, and during my post doc at the University of Houston, I started collaborating with scientists at the Johnson Space Center. I started working for NASA as a contractor doing research in remote sensing and did that for seven years. Then, after hearing me speak, the space station chief scientist at the time asked me to come work in his office for a year because I was very interdisciplinary and could represent both biology and Earth sciences. As I worked with all the science on the space station, I fell in love. That was almost 10 years ago.
MR: Women are still underrepresented in the sciences. Do you think that is changing and what work do you think still needs to be done before we see more women in science?