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Hot-Button Tickets: What's Playing Out Nationally Might Also Be Playing at a Theater Near You

A liberated housewife, Rust Belt factory workers, and a lesbian cartoonist take the stage across America.

Every year, theaters across the United States announce their upcoming seasons. And each time, a different pattern emerges. Last year, local theaters abounded with productions of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros — plays warning of demagoguery and conformism. This year, the trend has been toward marginalized groups: women, people of color, the LGBT community, Jews, and blue-collar workers. We've taken a look at some of the most widely (and pointedly) produced shows in the country right now.

Arden Theatre Company's production of A Doll's House, Part 2, with Steven Rishard as Torvald (left), Joilet F. Harris as Anne Marie, and Grace Gonglewski as Nora.
(© Mark Garvin)

1. A Doll's House, Part 2

A Doll's House, Part 2 picks up 15 years after Henrik Ibsen's 1879 masterpiece left off. Nora Helmer — who, at the end of Ibsen's play, walked out on her condescending husband and their three kids — comes home for a visit in Lucas Hnath's 2017 spinoff. She's spent her time away living and working as an independent woman. This liberated Nora is a proto-feminist, which no doubt contributes to the play's current prominence (at least 10 theater companies are producing it this season). In a year when more American women are running for office than ever before, Nora appeals as a model of persistence.

Current and upcoming productions: Actors Theatre of Louisville (Louisville, Kentucky), Arden Theatre Company (Philadelphia), Flynn Center for the Performing Arts (Burlington, Vermont), George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick, New Jersey), Huntington Theatre Company (Boston), Long Wharf Theatre (New Haven, Connecticut), PURE Theatre (Charleston, South Carolina), Round House Theatre (Washington, DC), Steppenwolf (Chicago)

Cleveland Play House's production of Sweat, with Xavier Cano as Oscar (left), Jack Berenholtz as Jason, and Robert Ellis as Stan.
(© Roger Mastroianni)

2. Sweat

Developed by playwright Lynn Nottage from interviews with residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat dramatizes the struggles of factory workers in a deindustrializing United States. Set at the turn of the 21st century, the play homes in on a steel-tubing plant whose employees span racial lines. Their sometimes aligned, sometimes conflicting interests remind audiences about the danger of reducing people to labels. In a racially charged country, Nottage's reminder is a timely one.

Current and upcoming productions: Capital Stage (Sacramento, California), Cleveland Play House (Cleveland), Denver Center for the Performing Arts (Denver), Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Philadelphia Theatre Company (Philadelphia)

SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of Fun Home.
(© Nile Scott)

3. Fun Home

Adapted from Alison Bechdel's autobiographical "tragicomic," Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's Fun Home chronicles the childhood and teenage years of a lesbian cartoonist who grew up under the thumb of a closeted gay father. Sexuality is central to this musical — just as it was to the national debate over marriage rights when Fun Home premiered in 2013. Two years later, all 50 states were required to allow same-sex marriage. But now, with a more conservative Supreme Court, LGBT rights are very much on Americans' minds again.

Current and upcoming productions: Baltimore Center Stage (Baltimore), Falmouth Theatre Guild (Falmouth, Massachusetts), Limelight Theatre (St. Augustine, Florida), Overture Center for the Arts (Madison, Wisconsin), SpeakEasy Stage Company (Boston)

Ethan Hawke (left) and Paul Dano will star in the upcoming Broadway production of True West.
(© David Gordon)

4. True West

The present proliferation of True West productions (including one opening on Broadway in January) constitutes a tribute to the playwright, Sam Shepard, who succumbed to ALS last year at the age of 73. The third installment of Shepard's so-called Family Trilogy — following Curse of the Starving Class and Buried ChildTrue West explores the antagonism between two brothers, one a screenwriter and the other a thief. Sibling rivalry is as old as the story of Cain and Abel, making this play as relevant as ever.

Current and upcoming productions: American Airlines Theatre (New York), The Gamm Theatre (Boston), Players by the Sea (Jacksonville Beach, Florida), PURE Theatre (Charleston, South Carolina), Steppenwolf (Chicago)

Victory Gardens Theater's production of Indecent, with David Darlow, Cindy Gold, Catherine LeFrere, Kiah Stern, and Andrew White.
(© Michael Brosilow)

5. Indecent

Paula Vogel's Indecent, which premiered in 2015 as a coproduction between Yale Rep and La Jolla Playhouse, spotlights three oppressed groups: women, Jews, and homosexuals. It tracks the real-life history of another play, Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance, which premiered in Berlin in 1907 and opened on Broadway in 1923. Asch's Yiddish melodrama, centered on a young Jewish woman who falls in love with a prostitute in her father's brothel, caused such a stir when it presented the first lesbian kiss on Broadway that New York City's vice squad arrested the cast. It's a sign of progress that today Vogel's play, which re-creates the same-sex kissing scene as it retells the story of and around God of Vengeance, can not only run on Broadway but throughout the country.

Current and upcoming productions: Arden Theatre Company (Philadelphia), Arena Stage (Washington, DC), Baltimore Center Stage (Baltimore), Huntington Theatre Company (Boston), Victory Gardens Theater (Chicago)

The 2014 Broadway production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
(© Joan Marcus)

6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

A Tony-studded success when it played on Broadway from 2014 to 2016, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon's novel) may seem a surprising choice for regional theaters. Featuring an autistic protagonist easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, much of the Broadway production's impact came from its use of lighting, sound, and projections to represent Christopher's perceptions. Yet the high-tech demands of the show haven't stopped several venues from staging it. Perhaps the urgency of the subject matter, which shines light on another underrepresented demographic, emboldens theaters to face the technical obstacles.

Current and upcoming productions: Adrienne Arsht Center (Miami), Dock Street Theatre (Charleston, South Carolina), Live Arts (Charlottesville, Virginia). Walnut Street Theatre (Philadelphia)

7. An Iliad

An Iliad, adapted by actor Denis O'Hare and director Lisa Peterson from Homer's poem about the Trojan War, is one of those works that would be relevant whenever produced. The themes underpinning the tale of the Greek warrior Achilles avenging the death of a beloved comrade — loss, fame, revenge, dignity — are timeless. But this particular adaptation for solo performance connects the 2,800-year-old Greek epic with the present, swapping Boeotians and Dardanians for "the boys of Nebraska and South Dakota" and interpolating references to ongoing fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Current and upcoming productions: Cleveland Play House (Cleveland), Gulfshore Playhouse (Naples, Florida), Long Wharf Theatre (New Haven, Connecticut), Trinity Repertory Company (Providence, Rhode Island)

Pasadena Playhouse's production of Native Gardens, with Bruce Davison (left), Frances Fisher, Jessica Meraz, and Christian Barillas.
(© Jenny Graham)

8. Native Gardens

Karen Zacarías's 2016 comedy concerns a border dispute between Democrats and Republicans — only the border in question separates two Georgetown backyards. Frank and Virginia are an older, conservative white couple, while Pablo and Tania are younger, Latinx liberals. Their clash over the fence dividing their yards reflects the larger sociopolitical issues at stake, yet Zacarías handles the conflict with humor rather than hatred. The implication that we're better off laughing about our differences than attacking one another over them is resonating with audiences around the country.

Current and upcoming productions: Cleveland Play House (Cleveland), Florida Repertory Theatre (Fort Myers, Florida), Syracuse Stage (Syracuse, New York)

Cast members of the off-Broadway production of School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play: Abena Mensah-Bonsu (left), Joanna A. Jones, Mirirai Sithole, Latoya Edwards, Paige Gilbert, and MaameYaa Boafo.
(© Luke Fontana)

9. School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play

Playwright Jocelyn Bioh's reimagining of the 2004 movie Mean Girls proved so popular when it premiered the Lucille Lortel Theatre last year that now it's receiving an encore run at the same venue. School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play transplants the story of a new student who disrupts her high school's social hierarchy to Ghana. Its setting never moves beyond the school, but the issues confronted by the girls cross cultures. By approaching the subject of race indirectly, Bioh avoids preachiness while still making audiences think about prejudice.

Current and upcoming productions: Jungle Theater (Minneapolis), Lucille Lortel Theatre (New York), SpeakEasy Stage Company (Boston)


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