Plays to go see now! The Bottle Tree by Beth Kander


Back in May, I announced with some fanfare the Theater Reviews For People Who Are Afraid Of Bad Theater! But then, ironically, we didn’t see any theater, bad or otherwise, for the rest of the summer because J was in a show of his own and I had to stay home with the baby.*

Now we are back in the normal swing of things, and yesterday we finally managed to hire a babysitter, get ourselves into presentable adult clothes, and actually leave the house together to go the opening night of Stage Left’s production of The Bottle Tree by Beth Kander.

It was fantastic, so I’m excited to properly kick of this series with a play I can wholeheartedly recommend. It runs until Nov 20th, tickets cost $20/30, and a spoiler free Q&A is below!

“So what’s it about?”

The Bottle Tree explores the legacy of a high school shooting from the perspective of Alley, the teenager sister of the shooter. Her brother is dead, but five years later she and her mother are still stuck living in the same small Mississippi community.

While staying grounded in the drama of the relationships it portrays, The Bottle Tree manages to make a larger point about gun culture in the US without ever seeming preachy or obvious—something that is hard to pull off in a play on this topic. The play doesn’t try to clobber you over the head with a message, but nor does the subject matter feel sensational. Rather, it’s a nuanced and humane story about a topic that is usually hard to speak of outside of overly simplistic cliches.

“Huh. Is this play going to make me feel uncomfortable?”

One of the things I appreciated about this play was that it balanced humor and tragedy. Of course, it’s a play about grief and the impact of a violent event. But there were also some wonderfully comic moments, so it never felt like an emotional onslaught.

Maybe I’m getting old. Or maybe it’s because I increasingly start to just equate ‘grittiness’ in drama or fiction with ‘glorification of male violence’, but I find myself less and less interested in seeing plays or movies or TV shows that are unrelentingly bleak and leave me feeling pummeled.

The Bottle Tree was a reminder that it’s possible to tell an important story in a powerful way without leaving your audience feeling completely emotionally exhausted by the end.

“So will this make a good date night then?”

Well… it is still a play about a school shooting and grief, so you might want to think about who you want to go with. Maybe not first date material.

But if you’re the kind of date who likes to have something thought-provoking to talk about afterwards—i.e., you’re also boring married people who rarely get out the house at night together and who are trying to remember to talk about something other than the cute thing your kid did today for at least 10% of the time, minimum—then yes, it’ll be a great date night!

“How’s the acting and stuff? Am I going to get an embarrassing fit of giggles at an inappropriate accent or something?”

Nah, you’re going to be fine. Stage Left has got together a great cast, and the production is very slick. Kathryn Acosta, who plays Alley, is fantastic, and in particular in the way she manages to convincingly portray a child, a teenager, and an adult. Adults playing teenagers is often bad enough, but when they play children it’s usually just cringeworthy. But Acosta makes it beautiful rather than weird. Kathleen Ruhl as Myrna is also just incredible. I’d love to talk more about her role, but I don’t want to give away spoilers.

“What about the theater? Are we going to be sitting on hard wooden benches that somehow still manage to be squeaky?”

The Bottle Tree is showing at Theater Wit which has relatively comfortable seating. No wooden benches—you’re going to get a padded seat with armrests. But like most theaters in Chicago, not a huge amount of leg room either. Get there early and sit on the front row if you are very tall.

Theater Wit has a great bar, and you can take your drinks in with you. Snacks available although they are rather pricey. (We bring our own Swedish Fish. Don’t rustle candy wrappers or your neighbors will hate you.)

One word of warning: the play is on the long side, at two hours with an intermission. The time flew by, however, so it didn’t drag at all.

“Ok I’m sold. Any other advice?”

Apparently there are three completely unrelated plays showing in Chicago at the moment about school shootings. J inadvertently went to all of them this week. He would not recommend this, unless you like really, really depressing yourself.

(Incidentally, he reports that the other two plays are also very good. They are: The Burials at Steppenwolf and Steep Theater’s production of Bobbie Clearly.)


The Bottle Tree, by Beth Kander, from Stage Left at Theater Wit

  • Five female characters and three male characters. The female characters were substantive rather than superficial.
  • The cast was not all white. The characters played by actors of color were not defined primarily by their race.
  • The playwright is a white woman (and this play received an Honorable Mention on The Kilroys List twice).


*Ok, I lied. We saw one other play recently but it was real bad. Worse, it  was two hours and forty goddamn minutes of bad. I thought about writing a post in this series about it, then decided I’d just stick to writing about shows I think you should go see, not those you should avoid.


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