Welcome to fall, when there are upward of 50 theaters opening new shows. Since only a madman would attempt to get to all of them, you're going to have to curate your way through the maze of dramas, tragedies, comedies and musicals. To help, we've put together a list of five we think rank at the top, ranked in order of how soon they're closing. Take a gander. Then, see a show. Or five.
Gem of the Ocean
Court Theatre (5535 S. Ellis Ave.)
Playwright August Wilson's gift for turning dialogue into poetry makes the words of his text-heavy dramas wash over you with the effortless, mesmerizing rhythms of ocean waves. In the fittingly titled "Gem of the Ocean," he takes audiences to the Hills District of Pittsburgh, 1904, and a community steeped in the legacy of slavery and the healing, other-worldly powers of a 285-year-old healer named Ester Tyler (Jacqueline Williams), whose mellifluous voice and endlessly expressive eyes make her a perfect fit for the part).
The plot swirls around a murder, a suicide, and the razor-wire racial tension stretched thin across the city. Director Ron OJ Parson has assembled an all-star cast of Wilson experts, with the magnificent A.C. Smith as Aunt Ester's protective caretaker and Alfred H. Wilson as a former slave, Union soldier and conductor on the Underground Railroad. If you treasure the exquisite art of seamlessly woven ensemble acting and poetry that's at once accessible and sublime, you need to make room for this on your calendar.
Through October 11
Tickets: $58 - $68
Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn St.)
The dinner party at the heart of Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama looks like a mini-United Nations confab: A white artist, her Muslim husband, his Jewish boss and the boss's African American wife. The conflagration that explodes between drinks and dessert? It's more warzone than U.N. Akhtar's 80-minute discussion of race, assimilation, terrorism and religion goes from polite to absolutely scalding with a subtlety so finely spun you don't even fully realize what's happening until full-fledged violence breaks out. The piece is as intelligent as it is brutal. Black, brown, white, Republican, Democrat, Atheist or Evangelical - I can guarantee you'll be thinking about this show long after the final black out.
Through October 25
The House Theatre of Chicago (1543 W. Division)
Rockabilly, blues and the haunting Appalachian twang that makes you long for country roads and West Virginia, even if you've never actually been there. Such is the stuff of Damon Kiely's "The Revel," where Bacchus, the Greek God of Wine, shows up in a coal mining town and persuades the women there to party with him in a revel that ends - as is the wont of Greek tragedies - very, very badly. The musical is Kiely's version of "The Bacchae," and as is usual at the House Theatre, it's raucous, surprising and ingeniously creative. You may know more about Bacchus than you realize: He shows up with some regularity in pop culture, in everything from old Disney movies ("Fantasia," "Hercules") to contemporary TV shows ("True Blood," "Futurama").
Through October 25
Tickets: $30 - $35
East of Eden
Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halsted)
John Steinbeck's Great American Novel is bound for Broadway and features one of those sprawling Steppenwolf ensembles that defines the company's aesthetic. And seriously, that's about all the information one needs to understand that the production has to be a must-see on any credible shortlist that comes out this fall. The plot pretty much defies summation: It's spread out between the Civil War and World War I, ranging over a continent but centered on two families in California's Salinas Valley. The issues are Biblical in scope: Themes exploring the eternal battle of good versus evil and man versus nature twine through questions of destiny and pre-determination, whether God exists and whether true love is truly possible.
The beauty of Steinbeck lies in his ability to take these massive subjects and convey them in intensely specific characters enmeshed in an enthralling story. And the power of Steppenwolf lies in its ability to do the same. Frank Galati - who won a Tony for his adaptation of Stenbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" - adapts. Company co-founder Terry Kinney directs. Best of all: If you see it here, you'll pay half (or less) of what they'll be charging once it hits Broadway.
Through November 15
Tickets: $64 - $89
Chicago Shakespeare Theater (800 E. Grand Ave.)
Shakespeare's not merely accessible on Navy Pier, he's magical. Literally, in the correct sense of the word. With Teller (less loquacious half of Penn and Teller) and Aaron Posner co-directing, Shakespeare's story of a sorcerer who bewitches the motley crew of mortals who wash ashore on his desert island is spellbinding. Sonically, the show enchants as the band Rough Magic (anchored by vocalists Liz Filios and Bethany Thomas) channels Shakespeare by way of composers Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. There's also two-headed, four-legged cannibal who will have you blinking in disbelief and illusions that makes David Copperfield look like an overhyped Vegas floozy.
Through November 18
Tickets: Start at $58
Photos: Ensemble member Tim Hopper (Adam Trask) and Aaron Himelstein (Caleb Trask), Casey Thomas Brown(Aron Trask), and Brittany Uomoleale(Abra Bacon)respond to a gift fromCaleb to his father,Adamin Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, a world premiere adapted by ensemble member Frank Galati and directed by co-founder and Terry Kinney. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Jacqueline Williams, Tyla Abercrumbie, A.C. Smith, Alfred Wilson, Jerod Haynes (seated) in Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson, directed by Ron OJ Parson. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior
The Revel 2015 Production Photo by Michael Brosilow
Casey Thomas Brown (Aron Trask) and Brittany Uomoleale (Abra Bacon) discuss the future in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Trinculo (at left, Adam Wesley Brown), Stephano (at right, Ron E. Rains) and a topsy-turvy Caliban (at center, front: Manelich Minniefee, back: Zach Eisenstat) are frightened by the spirits of the isle--personified by the Rough Magic ensemble in The Tempest. Photo by Liz Lauren.