A Brown man in a blue jacket stands leaning against a desk on the left. A white woman in a black suit stands right. A whiteboard on which words are scribbled is on the wall between them
Kaiser Ahmed and Rachel Sullivan in Jackalope Theatre's 2017 production of Ideation by Aaron Loeb Credit: Joel Maisonet

[Recommended] Ideation We’re in a meeting room at a consulting firm (whiteboard, ergonomic chairs). Four consultants (MBAs, engineers) and an intern (Scooter) have been tasked with conceptualizing a system for the liquidation and disposal (killing and hiding) of a million or more victims in the (as yet) theoretical event of an extinction-level viral outbreak. The consultants focus all their brainpower and arrogance on ideating (brainstorming) the problem. But as they draw arrows and circles on the whiteboard (“LF” = “liquidation facility”) it occurs to them that things may not be what they seem. The rest of Aaron Loeb’s erudite dark comedy presents the spectacle of smart people going nuts, weighing a possible genocide against keeping their jobs. Gus Menary’s Jackalope Theatre staging is hilarious and disquieting, its darkest joke being the first one: that these savants are gung ho as long as they think the job is just killing sick people. —Tony Adler

<i>Italian Bred</i>
Italian BredCredit: Thomas Felicciardi

Italian Bred Candice Guardino’s one-woman show about growing up Italian-American on Staten Island leans so hard on caricature that it sometimes hides the heartfelt family tribute at its core. With over-the-top New Yawk-accented parodies of her relatives, video cameos by the likes of Sopranos actor Steven Schirripa, and treacly musical interludes, Guardino works hard to make her life story feel like a cliche played for easy laughs. The truest parts of the show reveal her very real affection for her grandmother, Fran, who taught her to never take grief from anybody and to follow her dreams. Her stories about Fran’s no-nonsense lessons could’ve made for a compelling evening in their own right. In fact, if Guardino had cut most of the people-pleasing schmaltz, there’s no telling how proud grandma could’ve been. —Dmitry Samarov

<i>Johnny 10 Beer's Daughter</i>
Johnny 10 Beer’s DaughterCredit: Courtesy Something Marvelous

[Recommended] Johnny 10 Beer’s Daughter Dana Lynn Formby’s tight, intense drama, being given its world premiere by Something Marvelous, isn’t an easy play to watch—or to turn away from. From the moment the lights come up onstage, we’re drawn in, and with each passing scene we care more and more about the two main characters: a needy daughter seeking validation and her psychologically wounded ex-marine father. Arti Ishak and Randy Steinmeyer play the pair with sometimes terrifying full-throttle intensity, heightened by Emmi Hilger’s simple, unobtrusive direction. Formby tells her story well; hours after the play ended I found myself still brooding over the fates of these two lost souls. —Jack Helbig

Irish Theatre of Chicago's <i>The My Way Residential</i>
Irish Theatre of Chicago’s The My Way ResidentialCredit: Emily Schwartz

The My Way Residential The labored title is the first indication that there’s something off about Geraldine Aron’s play, now receiving its world premiere from the Irish Theatre of Chicago. The second indication is the play itself, which contains lots of half-baked scenes full of pretty good dialogue but loses momentum about halfway through because Aron can’t decide whether she’s telling the story of an elderly mother and her daughter, a middle-class, middle-age marriage that’s falling apart, or a Driving Miss Daisy-like friendship that develops between a cranky but good-hearted senior citizen and an undocumented emigre worker in her retirement community. Aron doesn’t develop any of her story lines enough for them to be compelling, though director Kevin Theis and his cast of seasoned professionals do their darnedest to make us care. Belinda Bremner, in particular, plays the elderly protagonist with such winning heart and soul it makes one yearn for better material for her. —Jack Helbig

Subtext Theater Company's <i>A Prayer for the Sandinistas</i>
Subtext Theater Company’s A Prayer for the SandinistasCredit: John Oster

[Recommended] A Prayer for the Sandinistas When the first Polish pope, John Paul II, made Chicago an early stop on his American tour of 1979, reports were circulating nationally that a popular uprising had made strides against the Somoza client regime in Nicaragua. Leigh Johnson’s intricate and impressive play encapsulates this historical moment inside the Blaczks’ living room on the northwest side, where a family of staidly conservative Polish-Catholic parishioners, having invited a pair of Nicaraguan orphans into the home to experience the papal visit, encounter instead two revolutionary fighters in camouflage and berets. Jonathan Hagloch’s staging for Subtext Theater Company is straightforward, with natural dialogue and well-rounded characters that appear to be drawn from Johnson’s own past. Kate Robison is stunning in her minor role as Maria, a shy friend of the family. —Max Maller

Mike Nussbaum in Northlight Theatre's <i>Relativity</i>
Mike Nussbaum in Northlight Theatre’s RelativityCredit: Michael Brosilow

Relativity To look at Mike Nussbaum—the full head of white hair, the eyes poised between melancholy and delight—you might think he was born to play Albert Einstein. And you’d be right. Nussbaum does a great job here, embodying the genius at age 70. If only he had a better occasion for it. Set in 1949 at Einstein’s home near Princeton University, Mark St. Germain’s new play takes an unlikely but intriguing premise, drains out every bit of interest, and leaves us with nothing but mawkish banalities. Never mind the first unlikelihood: that, in BJ Jones’s 70-minute staging, Einstein tolerates obvious hostility from a reporter (Katherine Keberlein) he’s only just met. The real trouble comes when St. Germain embarks on an earnest exploration of the alleged great man/good man paradox. What grown-up is shocked to learn that talented people aren’t necessarily nice? —Tony Adler

Halcyon Theatre's <i>The River Bride</i>
Halcyon Theatre’s The River BrideCredit: Tom McGrath

[Recommended] The River Bride There’s an eye-catching prop by Ellie Terrell that sums up the layered, enchanting aura of Marisela Treviño Orta’s 2014 one-act: in a Brazilian village along the Amazon River, as a father muses aloud about the mysteries of love, he slices a knife into a giant iridescent cloth fish, revealing a skeleton of wooden blinds and soft, plush bloodied guts. It’s at once childlike and grotesque, qualities that speak to the best of Orta’s fable and this all-Latinx Halcyon Theatre production directed by Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary. Two sisters (Sofia Tew and Flavia Pallozzi) reevaluate their romantic paths when a seemingly perfect suitor (Nate Santana) disrupts a wedding. I found myself engrossed in the playfulness of Orta’s poetry, and Santana radiates magic with a performance that carefully balances empathetic realism with heightened, surreal expression. —Dan Jakes

Otherworld Theatre's <i>The Rogue Aviator</i>
Otherworld Theatre’s The Rogue AviatorCredit: Courtesy Indie Grant Productions

The Rogue Aviator The recurring theme in Otherworld Theatre’s new steampunk, glam droogie-styled adventure-fantasy: big. Big cast, big performances, big cinematic soundtrack, and a sprawling mythology of political and military factions built around a big ol’ retrofuturistic metropolis hovering above 1930s America. An all-female squadron of bounty hunters navigates the skies, literal and diplomatic, after a rogue flyer declares war on a corrupt caste-system-based government. Does it all fit onstage? Sort of. Nick Izzo’s story and dialogue nod to classic sci-fi novels and comic books, and Tiffany Keane-Schaefer’s two-and-a-half-hour production often feels blocked and edited for a summer blockbuster movie. But there’s an indisputable LARP enthusiasm to The Rogue Aviator, along with plenty of creative world building for genre fans to sink their teeth into. —Dan Jakes

Luis Alfaro in <i>St. Jude</i>, at Victory Gardens
Luis Alfaro in St. Jude, at Victory Gardens

[Recommended] St. Jude Life isn’t a linear progression. If you need evidence, look no further than this smart, moving one-man show from Luis Alfaro. The story centers on a journey back to Alfaro’s southern-California hometown, where he’s met with a flood of memories while tending to his sickly father. Much of this hour-long saga is powered by raw emotion, informed by self-inflicted wounds and a troubled past. But a clever gimmick helps elevate it: the program doubles as a hymnal, and the audience/congregation is prompted to sing. By playing preacher, Alfaro seems intent on soliciting a bit of redemption, even if it’s done with a healthy dose of irony. —Matt de la Peña

[Recommended] Three Days of Rain Mercurial, carefully crafted performances by Kyle Curry and Kate Black-Spence drive Derek Van Barham’s intimate staging of Richard Greenberg’s 1997 drama, whose theme is the complex legacy—emotional and material—passed down from parents to children. Curry and Black-Spence play two characters each in this BoHo Theatre production. In act one, they are Walker and Nan Janeway, estranged siblings who reunite after the death of their father, Ned, a famous New York architect, to collect their inheritance, which they expect will be one of his celebrated houses. In the second half, set 37 years earlier, the actors portray Ned and Lina—the girlfriend of Ned’s business partner, Theo (Niko Kourtis, who also plays Theo’s son, Pip)—at the moment when Lina and Ned fall in love during a three-day rainstorm. Greenberg’s dialogue is witty and literate, as befits his privileged, urbane characters, but the humor serves an achingly painful narrative that haunted me long after the show ended. Curry is riveting as the quirky, narcissistic Walker and the shy, sensitive Ned, and Black-Spence is equally compelling as the nurturing Nan and especially the flamboyant, mentally unstable Lina, whose eccentricity—so alluring to Ned—will, we know, lead to a madness that will wreck her marriage and traumatize her children. —Albert Williams

Kaye Winks in <i>Token</i>, at Judy's Beat Lounge
Kaye Winks in Token, at Judy’s Beat LoungeCredit: Joel Maisonet

[Recommended] Token Kaye Winks goes for the jugular in her saucy new solo show about growing up black in a mostly white world. And who could blame her? Helped by great direction from Schoen Smith, Winks has a knack for uncomfortable, often hilarious jokes that speak to the greater ills of race in America. But it’s arguable that her talent isn’t evident so much in nailing unseemly stereotypes as in the subtle, self-deprecating humor that puts her squarely at the center of a thoughtful and reflective coming-of-age story. Bits about white friends from the suburbs, black cousins from the south side, and an exceptionally awkward holiday trip to the southern states are relatable, even humbling at times. —Matt de la Peña