PLAYHOUSE CREATURES, Wax Fruit Theatre Company, at Footsteps Theatre Company. Backstage secrets can be the very stuff of drama, particularly when they draw on history and excite the imagination, as in this wickedly intelligent Wax Fruit Theatre staging of Playhouse Creatures. April de Angelis’s drama introduces modern audiences to five of the first actresses allowed on the English stage, by decree of King Charles II in 1660. Although many of the details are invented or blurred, the play is entertaining and historically fascinating, illuminating the women’s personal and professional lives. DeAngelis also provides comic, nuanced excerpts from the actresses’ performances, creating remarkable opportunities for this capable cast.

Anne Byrd is particularly compelling as Mary Betterton–high praise in such a worthy ensemble, which also includes Marcia Reinhard, Anne E. Smith, Heidi Gottcent, and Gianine DeFrancesco, all relatively new to Chicago stages. Director Sean Byrd smooths over the script’s excesses and honors the period details of the Restoration, avoiding both anachronistic gestures and romanticized antiquarianism. Diana Boos’s flexible costumes and Brian McIntire’s pared-down set help us understand the characters and their shifting fortunes without overwhelming the small stage with ornate designs. Altogether, this production is a fine companion to Stage Left’s admirable revival of a work from a slightly later period, Susanna Centlivre’s The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret. –Carol Burbank