First acting, then teaching, and now 'This' for Western Springs native
Carl Menninger grew up in Western Springs, worked in Chicago theater for several years and never thought for a moment that one day he would write books, become a college professor and direct professional theater.
Yet here he is about to launch "This," a self-described "melanchomedy" about New York thirtysomethings whose longtime friendships are tested by death, infidelity and the passage of time.
Menninger now lives in Washington, D.C., but agreed to return to Chicago to direct at the Windy City Playhouse. "This," now in previews, was written by Melissa James Gibson, best known for her work on the popular Netflix series "House of Cards" and FX's "The Americans."
"This was a huge challenge for me, and I found it really appealing," Menninger said.
"It also speaks to the human condition, which the theater is supposed to do, but in a wonderfully eloquent way. She (Gibson) is a master of language."
Directing "This" also allowed Menninger to reunite with a former drama student from his short-term career teaching theater at Deerfield High School.
Amy Rubenstein, who grew up in Deerfield. is now owner of the real estate investment company Windy City RE LLC, as well as the artistic director of the Windy City Playhouse.
"The last time Carl directed me, I was 17 years old," said Rubenstein, who plays the role of Jane.
"He once told me when he was a little kid that he decided he was going to be either an artist or a priest."
The religious order clearly lost out to the arts.
"My parents didn't know what to do with me as a kid," Menninger admitted. "I was interested in the visual arts. There I would be at the dining table, gluing Popsicle sticks together to make log cabins, or whatever. I loved the visual arts. I loved the performing arts."
Young Menninger attended Western Springs' St. John of the Cross School -- where he credits teacher Zita Wheeler for being his first mentor -- then graduated from Lyons Township High School in 1977.
He earned a speech education degree from Northwestern University and a master's degree in theater from Emerson College before going to work at Victory Gardens and Chicago Dramatists.
He is now an assistant professor of theater at American University in Washington, D.C., where he has guided the theater and musical theater programs for eight years.
"Arts are the way of opening up our thinking to greater possibilities," Menninger said, sounding most professorial.
"The arts require you to tap into your creativity. They demand you use multiple sides of your brain. So, the arts are critical to our learning, especially among children."
Menninger's father, Ed, still works in the PR industry in New York. His mother, Catherine, still lives in Western Springs, where she once ran a social service agency, the Community Extension Project for families in crisis.
Menninger has also co-authored "Minding the Edge: Strategies for a Successful, Fulfilling Career as an Actor" with Lori Hammel. The book emphasizes the importance of happiness in undertaking an actor's lifestyle.
"Of all the people I've worked with over the years, he's really the one I relate to the most in terms of his style of directing," Rubenstein said of Menninger.
"He has a really strong visual concept of what he wants. You see that reflected in the sets and the staging.
"And," she added, "he's wonderful to work with."
• If you know suburbanites working in showbiz, contact Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
"This"What: The off-Broadway hit is a "melanchomedy" about New York thirtysomethings whose friendships are tested.
Where: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, (773) 891-8985 or windycityplayhouse.com
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 28. Previews through Wednesday, June 22.
Tickets: Previews $15 and $30; regular run $25 to $55