The 10 best Chicago theater performances of 2022

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Hundreds of highly skilled performances ennobled Chicago theater in 2022. Some flowed from celebrities, others from largely unknowns. All took risks, especially in an environment where the effects of COVID-19 still scrambled casts and created a whole raft of challenges for a profession that is plenty challenging enough in the best of times.

Here then, in alphabetical order and in honor of a stellar year of work in difficult circumstances, are 10 great made-in-Chicagoland performances from 2022 that will live on in the memory.

Kierra Bunch, “Two Trains Running,” Court Theatre: The role of Risa, a waitress, lies at the core of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” a character who serves up sustenance whatever the state of the world is beyond her diner’s doors, or even whatever the contents of her diner’s kitchen. Risa is a damaged person and she goes stoically about her daily business carrying those wounds; a history that the sad-eyed Bunch seemed innate to understand. This was a mostly male ensemble, often on fire in Ron OJ Parson’s Court production with Wilson’s poetic words. But it was Bunch who stood out as she walked with melancholy and pride across the stage, able to trust no one and yet still seeking out happiness on her own terms.

Felicia P. Fields and Chic Street Man in "Pearl’s Rollin’ with the Blues" at Writers Theatre.

Felicia P. Fields, “Pearl’s Rollin’ with the Blues,” Writers Theatre: Stars though they deserve to be, veteran Chicago actors rarely get the chance to star in vehicles specifically designed for them. Nor do they often get the chance to introduce themselves, and their lives, to audiences. But Fields, who has sung the blues in a slew of Chicago theater shows over the years, got that opportunity at Writers Theatre and it was a consummate pleasure for everyone concerned. Instead of being hidden behind a lyric or a role, Fields’ inclusive, warmhearted personality was on vivid display and it was nothing less than wonderful to watch Pearl roll.

Mary Beth Fisher and Bubba Weiler in Rebecca Gilman’s play "Swing State" at the Goodman Theatre.

Mary Beth Fisher, “Swing State,” Goodman Theatre: Mary Beth Fisher’s potent performance in Rebecca Gilman’s new play about an idealistic Wisconsin woman overcome by the burdens of life and loss was born in a profound familiarity with the writer. If Gilman could be said to have a muse, then Fisher is that actress. She starred in “Spinning into Butter” and numerous other works by a playwright whose latest Goodman drama, befitting this moment of disunity and widespread mental health issues like few other plays, came and went far too soon. I suspect Fisher would happily have played this woman, Peg, for months; she was that rich a find.

George Gershwin (John Zdrojeski) and Oscar Levant (Sean Hayes) in Doug Wright's play "Good Night, Oscar" at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Sean Hayes, “Good Night, Oscar,” Goodman Theatre: Oscar Levant — raconteur, neurotic, talk show guest, concert pianist — is about as challenging a real-life character as any actor could imagine. But by channeling him, Sean Hayes clearly unlocked something revelatory inside himself. This was an extraordinary piece of acting that startled audiences with intensity and delighted them with its musical pizazz. Both Hayes and the show are headed to Broadway this spring; the star of “Will & Grace,” who appreciates his roots in Chicago theater, will be a formidable draw and an awards contender.

Alicia Kaori plays Maria in Paramount Theatre’s holiday season production of "The Sound of Music."

Alicia Kaori, “The Sound of Music,” Paramount Theatre in Aurora: How do you solve an acting problem like Maria? Find your own way. Kaori was an utter delight as pop culture’s most famous Austrian novice, wrangling the Von Trapp children with a joyous kind of ease and (unlike many who have played this role) appearing totally believable as a woman who had never before paid attention to anyone even remotely like Capt. Von Trapp. Not a second of Kaori’s performance felt prepackaged and she listened to others as much as she commanded one of the greatest roles in the American musical theater. She was a total delight.

Cordelia Dewdney, Elizabeth Ledo, Susie McMonagle, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Lillian Castillo and Amy J. Carle in "Steel Magnolias" at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

Elizabeth Ledo, “Steel Magnolias,” Drury Lane Theatre: Most of us expected the creaky tear-jerker “Steel Magnolias” to be a run-of-the-mill summer production at Drury Lane, matching the season wherein the suburban theater takes a break from its big musicals. But it turned out to contain a slew of superb comedic performances from actors of a certain age and even more certain experiences. Playing the role of the Louisiana beautician and therapist Truvy, Elizabeth Ledo had the job of holding together one of the most talented ensembles of the year, and to say her Dolly Parton-esque performance was full of heart understates the warmth that radiated from her work. Ledo has played all kinds of characters in her Chicago stage career, often a canvas for directors’ whims. Truvy seemed to reside in this gifted performer’s center.

Kiley Fitzgerald, Julia Morales, Evan Mills and E.J. Cameron in the Second City revue "Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not."

Evan Mills, “Do the Right Thing, No Worries If Not,” The Second City: Great physical comedians are a crucial part of Second City’s storied past but they’ve been fewer in number in recent years. But Mills, who I described as a cross between “a gummy bear, a jack-in-the-box, Peter Sellers and a 149 CTA bus turning a corner with its bendy bit in the middle,” is very much of that ilk. He is the leading chameleon in Second City’s current cast and his quick-change prowess comes with a striking warmth and one of the fastest minds ever to ply the comedic trade on Wells Street. Happily for Second City’s audiences, the main stage revue “Do the Right Thing” showcased Mills at his very best.

Betsy Morgan (center) and the children's ensemble in Rogers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" at Drury Lane Theatre.

Betsy Morgan, “The King and I,” Drury Lane Theatre: No role in Chicago in 2022 was sung with more elegance and grace than Anna in Drury Lane’s “The King and I.” A Broadway performer who came back to her Chicago roots, Morgan’s vocals were simply exquisite; just as well when you have so many iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theater numbers to sing. Her acting was similarly fine: Anna is no easy role these days and requires navigating the space between romantic hero and proto-feminist resistance to the King of Siam. Morgan managed all magnificently atop a production filled with young people, all looking up in her superbly centered direction.

Older Allie (Maryann Plunkett), Middle Allie (Joy Woods), and Younger Allie (Jordan Tyson) in "The Notebook" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Maryann Plunkett, “The Notebook,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Playing a character suffering from dementia means avoiding pitfalls: condescension, bathos and raging cliché among them. Instead, Plunkett offered up a truly beautiful performance of a woman searching for what love still could mean, even if so many of the memories of the past appear to have been erased. This was a quiet performance in many ways, and all the more elegant for the loving care and respect for the elderly with which it was crafted. “The Notebook” also is headed to Broadway in 2023; Plunkett, the beating heart of this poignant new musical, deserves to be part of that New York cast.

Emily Rohm and cast in Paramount’s production of "Fun Home."

Emily Rohm, “Fun Home,” Paramount Theatre in Aurora: A rich vocalist, Emily Rohm spent many years playing Disney princesses, quirky teens and other leading musical theater roles. But in “Fun Home,” she was far from the lead: this is Alison Bechdel’s story and the central character is played by three different women at different ages. Rohm’s assignment was Helen, Alison’s mother, a woman trapped in a treacherous marriage and forced far more to react to others than to self-actualize. Alison escapes; Helen has no way out and, in all she said and sang, Rohm made you feel like the walls were closing in on her. By far the most successful interpreter of a role I’ve seen performed several times, Rohm made a superbly well-crafted case that it was Helen who had the least fun of all.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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