The Den Theatre remounts TurnAround Theatre’s 1995 hit Faith Healer
The rapidly growing Wicker Park venue incubates a reunion of the previous production’s cast and director 17 years later.
Ryan Martin, the 33-year-old founder and artistic director of the Den Theatre, is the father of two kids…technically. Unofficially, his count is three.
While chatting about his company’s upcoming remount of J.R. Sullivan’s Jeff Award–winning production of Faith Healer, originally staged by the defunct TurnAround Theatre in 1995, the soft-spoken husband and dad prepares to operate the box office for one show, gives a quick tour of his Wicker Park facility’s active classrooms, hunts down programs and checks in on rehearsals. This, after a morning of stocking the bar, building pipe-and-drape curtains and pivoting groups around to prevent last-minute noise conflicts. “[There’s] always something happening here,” Martin says. “It feels like another child.”
If so, it’s undergone a Honey, I Blew Up the Kid–style growth spurt. Founded just two and a half years ago, the Den now occupies 13,500 square feet on two floors overlooking Milwaukee Avenue. The homey venue encompasses five performance spaces, a bar and lounge, and three classrooms, the latter used by Seanachaí Theatre Company, which is producing its current season at the Den. “It’s so personal,” Martin says. “The furniture—I know exactly where every piece comes from.”, which is in residence. The whole operation, Martin says, is built only on the capital of “a lot of hustle” and a handful of contracts with artistic groups like
It’s a fitting venue for the revival of Brian Friel’s intimate, challenging drama about an Irish faith healer’s demise and redemption as told through four monologues from the healer (Si Osborne); his wife, Grace (Lia D. Mortensen); and manager (Brad Armacost). Before moving to Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, Faith Healer ran for four months in a thimble-size Lakeview venue that began as a 60-seat abandoned jazz club and now houses the Playground Theater. With no backstage, actors hid stage left for the duration of the show. And in lieu of a backstage toilet, Armacost says with a wince followed by a laugh: a bucket.
What followed is one of Chicago’s quintessential storefront-theater success stories. “We’d get there around four in the afternoon,” Armacost says, “and there’d be a line down Halsted Street. This was back before [services like] Brown Paper Tickets.”
“We had forward-leaning people. The play is two hours and three quarters long, and people were leaning forward all the way to the end,” Osborne says. Without fail, after performances of the Den’s recent, critically praised, Martin says, audience members approached him with memories of Faith Healer. “Everyone remembers the TurnAround one,” Mortensen says.
Reuniting for a read-through 17 years later with original director Sullivan, now the artistic director of the Pearl Theatre Company in New York, the ensemble was immediately on its feet. “It’s in us. I was amazed when I got back into the script,” says Mortensen, a Den ensemble member. “I had my words in four days, and [the speech is] 43 minutes.” The cast members unanimously say they feel even better equipped for their more age- and experience-appropriate roles.
“You cannot catch that lightning in a bottle,” Armacost says, “[but] you can re-create many of the ways we did it before, and that was in a small little space with a bunch of people who had more ambition than they had brains.”
On that, Martin sheepishly chimes in: “I know the feeling.”
Faith Healer previews Wednesday 19 and opens December 20.