REVIEW: The Piano Teacher (Next Theatre)


A heartfelt lesson on facing the music


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Next Theatre presents
The Piano Teacher
Written by Julie Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“What’s so wonderful about honesty? Mama said, ‘don’t be 100% honest.’” A retired widow shares her cookies and recollections. Next Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of The Piano Teacher. Mrs. K self-identifies as being effortlessly good at many small things. Musically inclined but not quite the concert pianist, Mrs. K starts out as a piano tuner. Later, she teaches piano from her home. Over the course of thirty years, she instructs hundreds of children. Out of loneliness, Mrs. K starts calling up her former pupils to reminisce. The reconnection jars memories that she forgot she had wanted to forget. While she was practicing scales in the living room, Mr. K was providing life lessons in the kitchen. The musical appreciation class was overshadowed by Genocide 101. The K homeschooling did have a profound impact on its students. It just wasn’t the recital variety. The Piano Teacher dramatizes the long lasting effects of being traumatized as a child.

Next_Piano_Teacher_2“My husband always said I expected too much… people are just being who they are.” Mary Ann Thebus (Mrs. K) hits all the right notes as the piano teacher. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, Thebus delivers Julia Cho’s monologues with all the familiar charm of the grandmother-next-door. Thebus is outstanding as she directly addresses the audience in the narration of her story, engaging with humorous reflections on the simple pleasures of cookies and “Dances with the Stars” enjoyed over a cup of tea. Shaking her head in amusement and continually nibbling on cookies, we see the authenticity of Thebus as a sweet old lady trying to piece together her life. This visual becomes haunting as Mrs. K is confronted with the past. Manny Buckley (Michael) gives a darkly crazed but controlled performance as a prodigy child turned disturbed adult. Buckley’s forceful interaction makes for a heart-wrenching contrast to Thebus’ fearful denial. Buckley’s wild eyes are especially threatening even when he speaks with eloquent normalcy. Representing another side to the same story, Sadieh Rifai (Mary) brings an empathetic balance as a grateful student that is worried about her favorite teacher.

The past meets present on a set, designed by Keith Pitts, that captures perfectly a piano teacher’s living room complete with musical artwork. The visual adds to the storytelling with a layer of cozy familiarity. It’s this preconception that makes the revelations more stimulating. Playwright Julia Cho introduces character analogies that are beautifully sad ‘He looked thirsty and he looked at me like I was rain.’ The narrations are delivered in fragment ramblings by a nice old lady, but when the puzzle pieces are placed together, it’s not the picture perfect image of a piano teacher’s home. Cho tells a thought-provoking tale of children’s loss of innocence. Combined with the homey atmosphere and the talented cast, The Piano Teacher is a genuine lesson in facing the music.

SPOILER ALERT: The front row gets cookies. Plan accordingly.

Rating: ★★★

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The Piano Teacher runs Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays (20th, 27th, 4th) at 4pm, and Sundays at 2pm – thru December 5th

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.


“The Piano Teacher” Artists




Mary Ann Thebus* (Mrs. K) Mary Ann Thebus has been active in Chicago area Stage, Film and TV productions for over 20 years. She has performed on most off loop stages as well as the Goodman Theatre, Court Theatre and Northlight and has done stints in Wisconsin, California and New York. Her last performance at Next was in the play Well. She was most recently seen in Chicago Shakespeare‘s Richard III and in January will be doing Joel Johnson’s The Boy’s Room at Victory Gardens Theater. She is a 2002 recipient of an After Dark Award, is a 10 time Jeff nominee and is a teacher of acting both privately and at The Artistic Home.


Manny Buckley(Michael) is delighted to join Next Theatre. He also appeared in Of Mice and Men (Steppenwolf), Streamers and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (The Gift Theatre and Victory Gardens), The Rant (Mary Arrchie), The Boys Next Door (JedlickaJPAC), and The Lost Boys of Sudan (u/s) (Victory Gardens). Before Chicago, Manny toured with Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, appearing in multiple roles including the lead in The Satchel Paige Story. Manny has also performed in Slovokia in the English Language Theatre Festival and The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Manny was honored to be hailed by the Chicago Tribune as one of six hot new stars to watch on the Chicago theater scene.


Sadieh Rifai (Mary) is delighted to be making her Next Theatre debut. Chicago credits include Welcome to Arroyo’s, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Distracted and Speech and Debate (American Theater Company) for which she received an After Dark award for outstanding performance. Other credits include understudying the role of Johnna Monevata in August: Osage County and Ski Dubai (Steppenwolf Theatre). Sadieh is a graduate of The School at Steppenwolf. This spring you can see her in the original Grease at American Theater Company. She is also very proud to be part of the web series Bad Sides. Sadieh would like to thank her family, Lisa and Dan.


Production/Creative Team


Julia Cho’s (Playwright) plays include The Language Archive, The Piano Teacher, Durango, The Winchester House, BFE, The Architecture of Loss and 99 Histories. Her work has been produced at The Public Theater, The Vineyard Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, South Coast Repertory, New York Theatre Workshop, East West Players, The Theatre@Boston Court, Theater Mu and Silk Road Theatre Project among others. Honors include the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Award, the Barrie Stavis Award, the Claire Tow Award for Emerging Artists and the L. Arnold Weissberger Award. An alumna of the Juilliard School and NYU’s Graduate Dramatic Writing Program, Julia is a member of New Dramatists. Her plays are available from Dramatists Play Service and


Lisa Portes(Director) is thrilled to return to Next Theatre, where she has been an Artistic Associate for nearly a decade.  Previously at Next: In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks and Far Away by Caryl Churchill. Recent credits:  Ghostwritten (Goodman Theatre) and After a Hundred Years (Guthrie Theatre) both by Naomi Iizuka, Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin and Spare Change by Mia McCullough (Steppenwolf Theatre First Look Repertory of New Work), Elliot, A Soldiers Fugue by Quiara Hudes (Rivendell Ensemble & Teatro Vista), Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons (Northlight Theatre) and Electricidad, Hamlet, Cloud Nine and Three Sisters (DePaul University). New York credits: Wilder by Erin Cressida Wilson and The Red Clay Ramblers (Playwrights Horizons), Hurricane by Erin Wilson and Fur by Migdalia Cruz (Soho Rep). Upcoming:  don’t miss the outrageously indulgent Pinkalicious at Chicago Playworks for Families and Young Audiences.  Lisa serves as Artistic Director for Chicago Playworks and heads the MFA Directing Program at The Theatre School at DePaul University.


Keith Pitts (Scenic Design) Is pleased to be designing at The Next Theatre. Professional Theatre credits include shows at: Milwaukee Rep; Steppenwolf; Court Theatre; Writers Theatre; Victory Gardens; American Theatre Company; Northlight Theatre; Timeline Theatre; A Red Orchid Theatre; Peninsula Players Theatre; First Stage theatre; Skylight Opera; and Chambers Theatre. Film: Static with Galatrax Pictures. Current Shows: To Master the Art at Timeline Theatre. Upcoming Shows: My Son Pinocchio at First Stage, Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at Skylight Opera, and Heart Break House at Writer’s Theatre.


Alex Meddows (Costume Designer) is excited to be designing for Next Theatre’s production of the Piano teacher. Alex is currently the Costume Shop Manager/ Instructor for Loyola’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts and holds an MFA from North Carolina School of the Arts and a BA from the University of North Carolina Asheville. Alex is also an Associate Artist at Timeline Theatre, and was the assistant to the costume designer staff from 2000-‘05 at the Goodman Theatre. Design credits include: Montana Shakespeare in the Parks; Loyola University Chicago; Timeline Theatre; Organic Theatre; A Shattered Globe, Monomoy Theatre in Chatham Mass. Alex received a Jeff nomination for Best Costume Design for the production of General from America at Timeline Theatre.


Gina Patterson (Lighting Designer) is thrilled to be working on her first show for Next Theatre. Gina most recently designed lights for Aiming for Sainthood and Ignition 2010! at Victory Gardens Theater, The Gin Game at Lincoln Square Theatre and Comedy of Errors and Aida at Interlochen Center for the Arts where she spends her summers teaching. Other Chicago area designs include Chaste, 12 Ophelias, Beholder and The Unconquered at Trap Door Theatre, Wings, Mountain, Uncle Vanya, Two Sisters and a Piano, A Man of No Importance, Jammin’ With Pops, Dirty Blonde and Indian Ink at Apple Tree Theatre, On The Verge with Remy Bumppo Theatre, and Bourbon at the Border with Eclipse Theatre. She has also served as assistant lighting designer on many shows, including Detroit, Endgame, The Brother/Sister Plays, and The Tempest at Steppenwolf Theatre, and The Good Negro, A True History of the Johnstown Flood, The Long Red Road and King Lear at the Goodman Theatre.


Victoria DeIorio (Composer/Sound Design) is thrilled to return to The Next after designing Defiance, Frozen (Jeff Award Nomination), Helen, God of Hell, Omnium Gatherum and Yellow Man. Off-Broadway credits: The Bluest Eye with Steppenwolf Theatre at the Duke Theatre, and Ophelia at The Connelly. Associate Off-Broadway credits: Primary Stages, Urban Stages, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the Actor’s Studio Theatre. Regionally: The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Cleveland Play House, Syracuse Stage, Indiana Rep, LA Theatre Works, Milwaukee Shakespeare, Victory Gardens Theatre, Chautauqua Theatre Company, and various theatres in and around Chicago, NY, and LA. She has been nominated for 10 Jeff Awards, receiving 5; and has received two After Dark Awards. Victoria is the head of Sound Design at The Theatre School of DePaul University.


Richard Lundy* (Production Stage Manager) returns to Next Theatre after stage managing Oh Coward and The Maids at Writers’ Theatre. Chicago credits include The U.N. Inspector, 9 Parts of Desire, American Dream Songbook, Defiance, The Busy World is Hushed, Frozen, The Adding Machine: A Chamber Musical, Miss Witherspoon, Helen, Fabulation, The Long Christmas Ride Home (Next), Suburban Motel (Famous Door), Pyretown (Victory Gardens Theater), Speed the Plow, Chicago Conspiracy Trial, Mishuganismo (Remains), Mrs. Warren’s Profession, From the Mississippi Delta (Northlight ) Other Chicago credits include: Organic Theater, Halstead Theatre Center Wisdom Bridge. Regional credits include: Cleveland Play House, Folger Shakespeare Theatre, Shakespeare & Company. National tour credits include Miss Saigon (Cameron Mackintosh). 24-year member of Actors Equity. Married to Carmel Carroll for 17 years.


Patrick Fries (Production Manager) is thrilled to be working with Next Theatre once again. Pat has worked with Next on The UN Inspector, Dying City, Boom, End Days and War With the Newts. Previous credits include These Shinging Lives, The Walls, Mary’s Wedding and 26 Miles (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble); Generic Latina 2010 and Lunatic(a)s (Teatro Luna); and Welcome Yule! (Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Thanks to the usual suspects.

Alfredo Aguilar (Assistant Stage Manager) is excited to be joining Next Theatre for the first time. He is a graduate from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Ma where he received his BFA in Arts Management and Theatre. Since graduating he has traveled the U.S. Stage Managing for various theatre and production companies such as Jonny Staxx Presents: Big Top Jojo; Northwestern Opera Department; Collaboraction; Pegasus Players; Trumpet in the Land; North Shore Music Theatre; Missoula Children’s Theatre; Naples Dinner Theatre; Zeitgeist Stage; and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Alfredo is excited to make Chicago his new home and would like to thank his friends and family for all of their love and support.


Azar Kazemi (Assistant Director) is a 3rd year MFA director at DePaul University.  Most recently she assistant directed for Gale Edwards on Romeo and Juliet at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.  Last winter she assistant directed for Ethan Hawke on A Lie of the Mind, off-Broadway at The New Group.  Some of her directing credits include: Crave by Sarah Kane, Top Girls by Caryl Churchill, Dying City by Christopher Shinn, The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute, and Tape by Stephen Belber.  This February she will be directing the Chicago premiere of Christopher Shinn’s adaption of Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. 

*Member Actors Equity


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