Perhaps it dates back to the classic Greek tragedies performed at harvest-time festivals, but autumn has always been prime season for theater. "In the summertime, people like to do summer things, and then all the [theater] seasons start up in the fall," said writer and performer Michael Milligan, who'll appear in American Theater Company's "Mercy Strain" this month. "It's definitely feasting time for the theater." Here's a look at what eight companies are bringing to stages around town in this fall.
American Theater Company
Michael Milligan knew he had to write "Mercy Strain" after suffering from kidney stones without insurance. "In addition to the physical pain, there's the mental anguish," Milligan said, "not knowing what you're going to do when you're at your most vulnerable." The show the experience inspired, about a mechanic wrestling to pay for his wife's cancer treatments, has been produced in church basements and the Minnesota House of Representatives, and will be performed here as a complement to another health care-themed one-person show from Anna Deavere Smith ("The West Wing," "Nurse Jackie"), "Let Me Down Easy."
Go: Sept. 14-Oct. 18 ("Mercy Strain") and Sept. 13-Oct. 10 ("Let Me Down Easy") at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
Tickets: $38-$48. 773-409-4125; atcweb.org
Broadway in Chicago
Running with that reliable stage formula of adding showtunes to a cult movie classic, "Evil Dead The Musical," like the campy film franchise it's based on, follows five college kids who've accidentally unleashed an evil force at their weekend cabin. The show has earned fans with an outlandish soundtrack ("All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons") and novel staging—theatergoers who choose seats in the "Splatter Zone" can expect to be drenched in fake blood and gore.
Go: Sept.23-Oct.12 at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Tickets: $38.99-$91.89. 800-775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com
Also playing: "Men are from Mars-Women are from Venus Live," performer Peter Story's one-man comedic riff on dating, sex and marriage based on the 1992 best-selling relationship help book (Oct. 14-19 at Broadway Playhouse; tickets $71.45-$79.65) and "Amazing Grace," a musical about the inspiration and musician behind one of the world's best known songs (guess which one), making its world debut. (Oct. 9-Nov. 2 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.; tickets $42.51-$166.59).
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
On the heels of late summer's "pedestrian theatrical experience" titled "Since I Suppose," Chicago Shakes' fall lineup mixes bold African music and culture with classic Mozart in a brief run of "The Magic Flute." South Africa's Isango Ensemble reimagines the 223-year-old opera through a contemporary African lens using drums, singing and marimbas (a xylophone-like instrument).
Go: Sept. 25-28 at the Skyline Stage, 600 E. Grand Ave.
Tickets: $20-$55. 312-595-5600; chicagoshakes.com
Also playing: Shakespeare's tale of an aging monarch dividing his kingdom, "King Lear," (Sept. 9-Nov. 9 at Chicago Shakespeare's Courtyard Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave.; tickets $48-$78) and "Ionesco Suite," excerpts from seven of French playwright Eugene Ionesco's avant-garde plays (Oct.15-19, Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare; tickets $45-$55).
Adapted by Chicagoan Nambi E. Kelley from Richard Wright's 1940 novel of the same name and produced in conjunction with American Blues Theater, "Native Son," seems especially timely in light of recent racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. The world premiere production is set in 1930s South Side Chicago, where a young black man named Bigger Thomas faces prejudice and poverty, especially after taking a job working for a wealthy white man.
Go: Sept. 11-Oct. 12 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Tickets: $35-$45 (previews), $45-65 (regular run). 773-753-4472; courttheatre.org
After a successful debut in the Goodman's smaller Owen Theatre last year, the company is making a rare move and bringing back "Smokefall" for a run in its larger Albert space. The Michigan-set drama from playwright Noah Haidle (who's also behind the 2012 Christopher Walken and Al Pacino flick "Stand Up Guys") was named to Chicago Tribune's "Best Theater of 2013" list and centers on Violet, an expectant mother who's also dealing with a straying husband, senile father and silent daughter.
Go: Sept. 20-Oct. 26 at Goodman's Albert Theatre 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $25-$81. 312-443-3800; goodmantheatre.org
Also playing: The world premiere of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's "The World of Extreme Happiness," a look at shifting economics and culture in contemporary China through the eyes of a young female factory worker, co-produced with Manhattan Theatre Club (Sept. 13-Oct. 12 at Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; tickets $10-$40)
Like several other shows this fall, "Death Tax" tackles apt issues of aging, death and a broken healthcare system. "It's about interesting stuff, a lot about death and how we're dying in America in 2014, how we're keeping death at bay," director Heidi Stillman said of the show, which features a sick mother (Deanna Dunagan) worried that her daughter (Louise Lamson) is pushing her closer to death before the new estate tax law passes.
Go: Sept. 2-Oct. 12 at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $25-$40 (previews), $40-$65 (regular run). 312-337-0665; lookingglasstheatre.org
"The Night Alive," Steppenwolf's fall offering, "doesn't fit neatly into any genre," said director Henry Wishcamper. Following runs in London and with New York's Atlantic Theatre Company, playwright Conor McPherson's story of two struggling strangers in Dublin who meet in an unexpected moment of kindness will resonate with Chicago audiences, Wishcamper said: "It's a really simple story that goes all kinds of unexpected places and ends up saying something quite profound without even knowing quite how it got there."
Go: Sept. 18-Nov. 16 at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Tickets: $20-$82. 312-335-1650; steppenwolf.org
"Rest," the work of Victory Gardens' Ensemble Playwright Samuel D. Hunter, who also penned last season's "The Whale," sets its action at a shuttering Idaho retirement home during a massive blizzard. The Midwest premiere show features stage vets Mary Ann Thebus, Ernest Perry Jr. and William Norris; fresher faces Matt Farabee, Amanda Drinkall and McKenzie Chinn; and themes such as mortality and new beginnings.
Go: Sept. 12-Oct.12 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $20-$40 (previews), $20-$50 (regular run). 773-871-3000; victorygardens.org