Christopher Plummer’s elegantly aquiline profile and a certain stagy flamboyance in his acting (which he smartly lampooned as a Shakespeare-spouting alien in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) make the Canadian actor perfect for this grandly entertaining tour de force. It first hit Chicago in March of ’97, then went on to Broadway, where Plummer won that year’s Tony for his portrayal of Jazz Age classical actor and matinee idol John Barrymore. Now the show returns to the Windy City, where Barrymore himself made his stage debut in 1903, and it’s something no theater lover should miss. Set in 1942–the year of Barrymore’s death–it presents its protagonist as a burned-out yet still charismatic figure rehearsing for a hoped-for comeback as Richard III (he spends much of the second act comically decked out in tights and a hunchback). Under Gene Saks’s direction and aided enormously by designer Santo Loquasto’s evocative set depicting the backstage of a darkened old Broadway theater, Plummer fascinatingly conveys Barrymore’s battered joie de vivre as well as the self-destructive superstar’s struggle with the demons of drink and self-doubt. This ongoing conflict provides a moving subtext to the anecdotes Barrymore unloads on his prompter–rambling, ribald tales of his multiple marriages, famous friends, and notorious family, including an absinthe-addicted actor-father, a stepmother who seduced him when he was just entering adolescence, and a brother and sister who rivaled him in dramatic artistry, though he surpassed them in sex appeal. Though playwright William Luce (who also dramatized the lives of Emily Dickinson and Isak Dinesen) doesn’t quite achieve the cathartic power he aims for, his witty, well-informed juggling of historical info and cutting quips gives Plummer a substantial showcase for his brilliant technique and mercurial range. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1500. Previews October 20 and 21: Tuesday, 8 PM; Wednesday, 2 PM. $25-$45. Opens Wednesday, October 21, 7:30 PM. Through November 1: Tuesdays, 7:30 PM; Wednesdays, 2 and 7:30 PM; Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 2 and 8 PM; Sundays, 2 PM. $25-$50. –Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.