Year-end superlatives are a bogus endeavor. Unless you’ve seen every last one of the roughly 200-plus productions that graced Chicago stages in 2018, you can’t credibly decree which were the absolute best. And even if you did see every last show, comparing multimillion dollar musicals with cash-strapped off-Loop dramas is a ridiculous exercise in apples and oranges.

With that in mind, here are ten shows that had the greatest impact on the Reader‘s critics. Nobody can say if they were the best of the best of the best. But of the hundreds of shows we collectively covered, these, listed in alphabetical order, are the ones that hit the hardest. —Catey Sullivan

<i>Caroline, or Change</i>
Caroline, or ChangeCredit: MARISA KM

Caroline, or Change, Firebrand Theatre Director Lili-Anne Brown’s take on Jeanine Tesori (music) and Tony Kushner’s (book and lyrics) musical overflowed with wit, emotion, and powerhouse vocals. As Caroline, a character loosely based on the African-American housekeeper who helped raise Kushner, Rashada Dawan created a character with formidable might and intelligence and a spirit that refused to sink under the weight of a world where racism and economic injustice were as common as household appliances. Speaking of which: singing washing machines can be a tough sell. But Brown’s ensemble succeeded, making washers, dryers, and radios into sentient, gorgeously sonic beings. —CS

FrankensteinCredit: JOE MAZZA

Frankenstein, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company From the opening pantomimed vignettes of the monster’s birth to his chilly arctic duel with his maker at the end, Remy Bumppo’s Frankenstein made me completely forget Boris Karloff and made a 200-year-old cautionary tale seem relevant. It’s a story about hubris and playing God told through stark, minimalist means. Greg Matthew Anderson and Nick Sandys swapped the roles of the creature and the doctor during the show’s run, giving audiences a great reason to see this unforgettable production twice. —Dmitry Samarov

<i>The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Volume 2</i>
The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Volume 2Credit: RICK AGUILAR

The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Volume 2, Hell in a Handbag Productions Let it stand as a testament to the kind of year this was, what sort of swill we had to wade through just to get out from under it, what kind of singleness of purpose it took just to let our hair down for one night and have fun even, that the show I recommended most to people in 2018 was a fake episode of The Golden Girls in an attic in Andersonville. —Max Maller


HeLa, Sideshow Theatre Company and Greenhouse Productions The world premiere staging of J. Nicole Brooks’s HeLa gave Chicago the rare gift of seeing a great piece of theater at its inception. Using the heart-wrenching true story of Henrietta Lacks as its launching point, it goes beyond the stars and back. Its plaintive, funny consideration of race, science, and basic humanity in America is timeless. If you didn’t feel something after seeing it you’d better check your pulse. —DS

KingdomCredit: DEVON GREEN

Kingdom, Broken Nose Theatre As episodic quirkiness increasingly replaces thoughtful plotting on American stages, Chicagoan Michael Allen Harris bucked the trend and showed just how vital and contemporary “old school” playwriting can be. His crucial two-hour family saga, set just beyond and a million miles from Walt Disney World, followed four members of an overburdened, mutigenerational African-American family who all happen to be gay. Avoiding easy moralizing, Harris constructed complicated, messy family dilemmas exacerbated by the sort of pernicious social forces that traumatize entire communities, making the interpersonal positively epic. —Justin Hayford

<i>Phoebe in Winter</i>
Phoebe in WinterCredit: Leslie Schwartz

Phoebe in Winter, Facility Theatre Facility Theatre had a hell of a 2018. In the spring they turned composer David Lang’s Pulitzer- winning choral work The Little Match Girl Passion into a lush, psychoactive performance piece as lyrical as it was grotesque. Then in the fall they slayed with Jen Silverman’s intricate, mesmerizing postwar fable Phoebe in Winter, a sly assault on every outmoded theatrical and patriarchal norm you can imagine. Resident director Dado helmed both productions, leaving little doubt she’ll lead this new and intrepid troupe to more great things in 2019. —JHayford

<i>Red Bowl at the Jeffs</i>
Red Bowl at the JeffsCredit: Montana Bruns

Red Bowl at the Jeffs, The Sound A small-time theater company sits through the non-Equity Jeff Awards with “Nominee” ribbons pinned to their lapels, waiting to see if their ambitious Chekhov adaptation is going to be snubbed or not. Effectively a lovingly specific play-length inside joke aimed at Chicago theater, written by Beth Hyland and directed by Rebecca Willingham, this show from The Sound was one of the most charming, most intellectually self-aware things I saw all year. —MM

<i>The Safe House</i>
The Safe HouseCredit: Steve Graue

The Safe House, City Lit Theatre Kristine Thatcher, a graceful writer with a fine ear for dialogue and a gift for subtle character development, premiered her heartfelt memory play about a steely but aging grandmother and her troubled daughter at City Lit Theatre in November. At once funny and moving, this bittersweet work looked the world straight in the eye, revealing in its too brief time on stage the terrible beauty and paradox of living, that life is at once painful and wonderful, terrifying and amazing, awful and too short. —Jack Helbig

<i>Second Skin</i>
Second SkinCredit: Joe Mazza

Second Skin, WildClaw Theatre Chicago playwright Kristin Idaszak uses the Celtic legend of the selkies, the souls of drowned humans who come back as half seal shapeshifters, as the inspiration for this evening of short, creepy tales. The beauty of Idaszak’s writing, and of director Jess Hutchinson’s pitch-perfect production, lay in the revelation that the mundane horrors of everyday life—loneliness, chronic illness, inevitable death—are at least as terrifying as specters that stalk us in the night. I was haunted long after the curtain fell on Idaszak’s finely written and performed ghost stories. —JHelbig

WitchCredit: Michael Brosilow

Witch, Writers Theatre Jen Silverman’s drama centered on an accused witch in 17th century England, but it was as of-the-moment as tomorrow’s headlines. In one brutally haunting passage, the titular (accused) witch speaks of being too bone-weary to speak up against injustice and lies. It’s the underside of “nevertheless she persisted,” and the setup for the indelible closing monologue about the insidious creep of hopelessness. Director Marti Lyons created a harrowing (and surprisingly funny) story of Puritan England, sliced with knives of contemporary urgency. —CS   v