“Albert Williams writes the kind of criticism for which the George Jean Nathan Award was designed—incisive, thorough, confident in the intelligence of its readers, and convinced that theatre makes a difference to the city in which it occurs.”

—from the citation of the George Jean Nathan Drama Award committee

Chicago theater and the Reader

We grew together. If you produced a show, we provided a critic. In 2000 the Reader‘s chief critic, Albert Williams, received his profession’s top honor, the George Jean Nathan Drama Award. One of the virtues Williams was hailed for was his range, which in the past year, said the citation, had run from Hair to Second City to Eugene O’Neill. But of course Williams had range! Without it, how could he do justice to Chicago theater? Below is an excerpt from his review of the Court Theatre’s Desire Under the Elms and Goodman’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The two plays are very different in tone, but both are shaped by the same events: the deaths of O’Neill’s mother, Ella, in 1922, and of his brother Jamie in 1923. Desire—written in 1924, when O’Neill was in his mid-30s and these losses were still fresh—reveals a mature, accomplished writer young enough to boldly face a future at once promising and perilous. It’s a hot-blooded, plot-heavy drama that pulses with burning energy—like the sun, whose capacity for making things “grow bigger and bigger” while enflaming frail humans’ passions constitutes one of the script’s central motifs. Moon, penned some 20 years later by a hand palsied with Parkinson’s, is the work of an aging artist who’d achieved great success yet also endured enormous personal pain—not only physical infirmity but the failure of two marriages and the loss of or estrangement from his children. Despite bursts of rustic humor, it’s a ruminative, melancholy work in which virtually nothing happens, nothing more than what happens in a Catholic confessional booth—unless you believe that expressing penitence and receiving absolution can save one’s soul.

For all their differences, the two plays are perfect companion pieces. Each focuses on a man who, like Jamie O’Neill, is unable to shake off the grief and guilt he feels over his mother’s death, or the festering anger he feels toward the domineering father who made the mother’s life a hell. Eben Cabot in Desire and Jim Tyrone in Moon are drawn to women in whom they see their dead mothers’ spirits. The women—Abbie Cabot in Desire and Josie Hogan in Moon—want to make these men their lovers in part out of passion and in part as a way to lay claim to their farmland. But the outcomes are as different as, well, the sun and the moon.

The Reader had always taken the week off after Christmas (in the early years we actually knocked off for two weeks). In 2000, when the brass decided to stop leaving money on the table, editor Alison True had an idea. The 52nd issue was, as the cover put it, “pure fiction”—short stories by Charles Dickinson, James McManus, S.L. Wisenberg, and lots of other Chicago writers. The editorial staff caught a break anyway, and literature lived! The Reader‘s been ending the year with a fiction issue ever since.