Circle Theatre, Forest Park’s premier theatrical destination, added to its tradition of award winning presentations this year with four more Jeff citations, the annual awards for excellence in Chicago theater.
Circle is the only theater company outside of Chicago eligible for the awards and its citations this year came after a record 15 Jeff nominations.
“It’s a really nice validation for us because they are mainly Chicago companies,” said Kevin Bellie, Circle Theatre’s artistic director. “We are the one company in the citation wing that is not in Chicago, and that for us is pretty darn exciting.”
Bellie estimates that Circle has won about 70 Jeff nominations and 45 citations, to date.
Four actors won citations this year, two each from Circle’s musical productions of Jane Eyre and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Winners included Sarah Swanson, who received a citation for Actress in a Principal Role; Darrelyn Marx, for Actress in a Supporting Role; Jon Steinhagen, for Actor in a Principal Role; and Joel Sutliffe, for Actor in a Supporting Role.
Taking chances: Jane Eyre
Because Jane Eyre flopped on Broadway, many theaters didn’t perform it. But Circle Theatre took a chance”a wise choice, according to Sarah Swanson, who played the lead.
“What I really loved about the piece was that it was about a women’s journey, her discovery along the way and the transformative power of forgiveness,” Swanson said, adding that expressing these universal themes was emotionally demanding for her.
Physically, she stretched her vocal cords through singing and being onstage almost the entire time.
“Sarah is just incandescent,” Bellie said. “She won the audience over from the second she was on stage.”
Jane Eyre was Swanson’s first time acting a principal role and she juggled rehearsals with her full-time job at Northern Trust Bank.
“For me this just says, keep working and continuing to develop,” said Swanson, who also won a citation for her supporting role in The Secret Garden last year. “It’s a really nice recognition and honor.”
The comic relief: Darrelyn Marx
Amid Jane’s emotional turmoil, Darrelyn Marx, who played fuddy-duddy, nosy nanny Mrs. Fairfax, was the much-needed comic relief, Bellie said.
“You just love hearing the audience laugh and giggle,” said Marx, who returned to acting after teaching theater in high schools and colleges. “I never did see myself as a comedic actor but it was a lot of fun.”
It was, however, a challenge to go from directing students to being an actor, Marx said. “This was a real learning experience for me,” she said.
Since Jane Eyre, Marx has continued to work with Circle Theatre as a dialect coach.
“The Circle people, they are a joy to work with,” Marx said. “They’re so happy, so focused and so loving, and they make an effort to do well by the community they are from.”
Both Marx and Swanson gave kudos to the ensemble members, who often came to rehearse after hours of work or school.
A Victorian tradition: Edwin Drood
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which received two Jeff citations, was also based on a Victorian novel. In it a company of actors decide to perform the Dickens novel, but since Dickens never finished this story, the audience chose the ending for each show.
The show was over the top and it made fun of itself, said Jon Steinhagen, who set the scene as the Chairman, joking with the audience, running applause-level polling for endings and eventually filling in for a missing actor.
The actors generally got about five minutes’ notice before they started the second half, Steinhagen said. Although the endings were scripted, they didn’t know which ending would be played.
Memorizing a “mountain of dialogue” was the hurdle for Steinhagen, who has been a musical director for almost 20 years and usually works on the musical end at Circle Theatre.
He has since auditioned for other roles and has been writing a show of his own.
Role Reversal: Joel Sutliffe
Although Steinhagen was the actual music teacher of the group, Joel Sutliffe played a villainous music teacher here: He seduced his student, Rosa Bud, a la Phantom of the Opera.
Sutliffe enjoyed acting all three personalities: the courteous teacher, the seducer and the actor in the company.
“He had very different sides of the spectrum to play and he did a beautiful job,” Bellie said.
Improvisation was the real challenge in this show, said Bellie.
For Bellie, these awards reaffirm Circle Theatre’s place in the Chicago theater arena. “It’s hard to run a professional theater company in Chicago and it adds a little extra to the trouble when you are outside of Chicago,” says Bellie. “You have to fight a little extra hard, which Circle over the last 20 years has done very well.
Next up for Circle is What’s Wrong With Angry?, about a 16-year-old boy who discovers he is gay. It opens Wednesday, July 20 at 8 p.m. and runs July 22 through August 28, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Thursday shows: 8 p.m. on August 11, 18 and 25. Previews: 8 p.m. July 15, 16 and 19. Circle is located at 7300 W. Madison St. and tickets for the new show are $22, $20 for seniros and students, and $11 for preview shows.