By Mary Kroeck
Back in 1983, as Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro said goodbye to New Haven Playhouse, they said hello to a brand new opportunity. In taking on the challenge of renovating an old post office building into a seventy-seat theater in Rogers Park, they laid the cornerstone for an adventure they couldn’t foresee.
Out of the ashes of their former ensemble, the two, along with a few others, founded Raven Theatre Company. Now in its twenty-fifth season, Raven is celebrating its anniversary by performing a work by the playwright who started them on their journey—Tennessee Williams.
“Our first show was a double bill of ‘27 Wagons Full of Cotton’ [by Williams] and ‘The Pushcart Peddlers’ [by Murray Schisgal],” says Menendian, who is also Raven’s artistic director. “We called the show ‘Welcome to the U.S.A.’ So, I guess even back then we had the inkling that we wanted to perform classic American plays.”
The company is opening this season with “Night of the Iguana,” Williams’ Tony Award-winning play.
“We’ve been wanting to do ‘Night of the Iguana’ for a while,” says Raven’s general manager, Montemurro. “It’s been one of those plays that was always on our short list of productions we’d like to do.”
Montemurro is starring in “Night of the Iguana” as Maxine, a widow who is trying to keep her love life and hotel intact as drama unfolds between a busload of angry Baptist women, a defrocked minister, a group of Germans who visit her hotel for a wedding and a young artist traveling with her grandfather. The show is set in Mexico in 1940.
Over the years, Menendian and Montemurro have seen the company grow and change, expanding its ensemble and making a move to another location. In 2000, Raven was forced out of its Rogers Park home by the Board of Education. They relocated to an old grocery store on North Clark Street, but didn’t open as a theater until 2002. Their first production there was “Marvin’s Room,” by actor/playwright Scott McPherson.
“The opening of ‘Marvin’s Room’ was really a defining moment to me about Raven and who we are,” says Raven ensemble member Chuck Spencer. “You know, whenever you build something in Chicago there are always delays, whether it’s a building or a company, whatever, there are always delays. We had to keep postponing the opening because of delays. For a while we thought, ‘Are we ever going to open?’ Once we finally did I felt like it was such a great culmination of all the hard work the entire company put into not only the show itself, but also the new theater.”
Menendian and Montemurro second those remarks. “It took us almost two years to fundraise and find an architect and work with the city to get all our permits to open the new theater,” Menendian says. “It was a lot of hard work.”
But after all the waiting was over, Raven had a brand new home with two stages (the East Stage, which seats 150, and the West Stage, which seats sixty). And, as in many homes over the years, the family of Raven Theatre Company has been through joys and tribulations.
“We’ve seen deaths, births, marriages and divorces,” Menendian says, who has been privy to these events first hand as he is married to Montemurro and the two share a family. “All the things we’ve been through in our own lives have shown us how to do the best we can do and have made us become more and more seasoned in our profession. I think as we’ve grown older we’ve tried to defy more and more obstacles, [both personally and professionally].”
Montemurro believes that all the challenges they’ve faced have done a lot to help them grow into the company they are now, one that concentrates on classic American theater, but is able to explore classic theater as a whole and from time to time challenge themselves with new works. “From a process point of view, we’ve gained confidence as we’ve grown,” Montemurro says. “We haven’t had to isolate ourselves in so many ways we are able to challenge ourselves. There’s no way we could have done ‘Night of the Iguana’ thirty years ago. Now I’m at an age where I feel I can play Maxine and I have the experience of other roles behind me…I’m also happy that Mike’s directing it.”
So, with a new season comes a new list of productions and thus, challenges that the company will face together and they welcome it all. “We organically forged an identity as a theater company that performs classic American theater in Chicago,” Menendian says. “The history of our theater has seen it all…And through it all we learned more and more what it takes to put on a production.”
“Night of the Iguana” begins previews October 9 at Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark, (773)338-2177.