Each day, more and more people are resuming their normal, daily activities in person. And, despite the masks and focus on cleaning and hygiene, some days it almost seems as though life is almost back to normal.
After all, as those in theater would say, the show must go on.
In 1991, when a North Riverside dentist named Dr. John Strelecky envisioned a community theater troupe that would celebrate the joy of live music and spirited stagecraft, never would he have imagined that 30 years and dozens of shows later, North Riverside actors would eagerly be waiting out a global pandemic to once again wow audiences with a top-notch, professional production.
Though Strelecky died in May at his home in Florida following a battle with Parkinson’s disease, his legacy lives on. The North Riverside Players will pull back the curtains this fall to celebrate both the return of live shows and three decades of entertaining local audiences.
For the first time since the troupe hit the pause button in March 2020, the North Riverside Players will be back on stage this week with their production of “Finding the Sun,” a one-act play by American playwright Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?”).
The show centers on eight upper-class East Coast residents on a beach holiday discussing relationships, friendships and the meaning of life. Filled with poignant moments and humor, the play takes a wry approach to musing on life.
“The show is about life, relationships, age — and in 60 minutes, you get quite an interesting milieu of life,” says North Riversider Al Meyer, producer of “Finding the Sun” and longtime member of the North Riverside Players.
The troupe chose the play for a contest this spring through the American Association of Community Theatre. While the North Riverside Players had won state and regional levels of the live-performance competition in the past, due to the pandemic this year’s format called for a 30-minute video submission of a one-hour show.
With submissions from 45 theater groups from around the country, only 12 shows were selected and North Riverside Players weren’t chosen.
“I think we would have fared better if we would have been allowed to show the full 60 minutes,” Meyer said. “It is what it is, but because we had done it and learned the entire show, we decided to do this for our fall show.”
Aside from already having a show’s script memorized, the play itself is one the troupe felt could be safely performed in a live, in-person format.
“We wanted the chance to do a show that was a little more contained, because we didn’t know what the rules with COVID-19 and live performance would be,” Meyer said.
A simple play with minimal scenery and simple costumes, the eight characters in “Finding the Sun” walk on stage as though they are casually strolling along a beach, set up lawn chairs and blankets, and engage in lively conversation.
With all eight cast members fully vaccinated and audience seating set up to ensure ample space between chairs, along with enforcement of mandatory masks indoors for audience members, Meyer says the troupe is confident they can put on an entertaining, safe production.
And, as a way to celebrate North Riverside Players’ 30th anniversary, immediately following each show they’ll screen a 20-minute highlight video of the past musical productions.
The highlight reel will include snippets of songs, photos and video (including clips of Strelecky on stage to show how far the group has come and pay tribute to its founder’s vision.
“It should be a nice tribute to John. He’s our inspiration, and he’s the guy that got this thing wholly off the dime in 1991,” Meyer said.
All these years later, what has been the North Riverside Players’ legacy?
“Part of the joy of doing this is the talent,” Meyer said. “These are all amateurs, but they are talented people. They really commit to the craft. The live performance is what it’s all about.”
From attracting talent from across Chicagoland to building impressively detailed sets for their plays and musicals, Meyer says every year the troupe is proves it is adept at “transforming a gym into an honest-to-goodness theater.”
As for one thing that has proved more difficult for the North Riverside Players over the years?
“Thirty years ago, you weren’t able to sit in front of a flat-panel TV and have hundreds of choices of entertainment at your fingertips,” Meyer said. “So, live theater was unusual and there wasn’t that much competition. But now, in the last 30 years, entertainment options in the world have simply exploded. We have to fight for our market share.”
However, all things considered, he added, “We’re sure having fun and we’re sure making great theater.”
“Finding the Sun” show times are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7 through Saturday, Oct 9, with a final matinee at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10. Performances at in the gymnasium of the North Riverside Village Commons, 2401 Desplaines Ave. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at nrplayers.com or by phone at 708-512-7015.