Beau O'Reilly's new play cycle takes three generations and calls you in the morning.
Playwright Beau O’Reilly’s 83-year-old mother, Winifred, acts in his newest play. So do two of his sisters. And his 26-year-old son. On another day, you could probably call it nepotism; O’Reilly’s company, Curious Theatre Branch, which hosts the annual Rhinoceros Festival, has long featured scads of O’Reillys on and offstage. (Beau is the fifth in a line of 14 siblings.) But in the case of O’Reilly’s newest theatrical trilogy, it’s less a matter of incestuous casting than statistical probability. O’Reilly’s shoestring opus, an eight-hour trilogy called The Madelyn, features a cast of 38. With an ensemble that large, having a relative involved is more likely than not.
The unofficial centerpiece of this year’s Rhino (which is the 19th annual), the Madelynn Plays examine a group of disparate middle-aged siblings who are forced to reconvene after a family suicide. “I’m interested in what happens when people who have grown up together have adult crises,” O’Reilly says. If the plot sounds similar to another recent Chicago family play, Steppenwolf’s Broadway-bound August: Osage County, you can be assured that the two endeavors will look completely different. As has often been noted, even at 54, O’Reilly, son of great Chicago actor James O’Reilly, is still pure fringe.
Although he’s descended from the most proper of theatrical pedigrees—his classically trained father was the Court’s artistic director in the ’60s and helmed the Body Politic in the ’70s—Beau’s role as shepherd to multiple generations of fringe artists is undisputed. The high-school flunkie (who for a while lived in San Francisco because midwife home births were illegal in Chicago; he wanted his kids to enter the world au natural) is among the last theater artists standing from the now-legendary days of Wicker Park’s once-dangerous theater scene in the ’80s. (To hear O’Reilly tell it, the ’hood was dangerous in every sense.)
In his tenth year of teaching at the School at the Art Institute of Chicago, O’Reilly also continues to oversee the enormous, ramshackle, multimonth Rhino. This season features a broader spectrum of contributing companies than in recent years, which have tended to edge toward a certain esoteric insularity. Mindful of the importance of a cross-pollinated festival, O’Reilly notes companies like the Side Project and Stage Left have entries in the festival. “Artists need to be in contact with each other,” he says. “It’s healthy to include to as many kinds of companies as possible.”
And when so many of your family members are already tied up in one project, it’s also a necessity.
The Madelyn plays are running in repertory.