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Farther down the road 

Director John Miller-Stephany’s first season at the helm looks promising.

click to enlarge MILLER-STEPHANY: Putting his stamp on The Rep with 2017-18 season selections.
  • MILLER-STEPHANY: Putting his stamp on The Rep with 2017-18 season selections.

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre is stable enough to have built a new Education Annex and recruited John Miller-Stephany as its newest director. It didn't get there by ignoring its audience. Leaders like Bob Hupp and founder Cliff Fannin Baker seem to have sensed that the Little Rock audience is not a homogenous thing — that the same polished performance from Ethan Paulini in "Elf" in 2014 sent the crowd around me into wave after wave of uproarious laughter while I sat, eyes cut sideways, wondering if seasonal depression could be triggered by 90 minutes of exposure to punchlines like "Elfish Presley." They've known when they could push the envelope a little and when they needed to bring in the high kicks and the schmaltz, and they didn't underestimate how many different types of experiences audiences were looking for, programming "Angels in America" in the same season with "Little Shop of Horrors" and putting a production of Matthew Lopez' "The Whipping Man" next to "Mary Poppins."

The Rep's 2017-18 season, starting in August, is the first to be programmed by Miller-Stephany, and after a review of his selections, it's safe to say that there is something for everyone who believes that theater has a power — that spectacular theater shouldn't merely provide us with a break from the socio-politically charged environs of the newsfeed, but should fire off our synapses so that we return to the real world around us with an ever-so-slightly modified lens. That's a pretty tall order, but this season is absolutely up to the task, whether that comes by way of Carson McCullers or ABBA.

The season opens with "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," to be performed Aug. 23-Sept. 10. Carson McCullers' debut novel, which she described in a letter to a publisher as the story of "five isolated, lonely people in their search for expression and spiritual integration with something greater than themselves," has been the subject of paintings, a movie and, in 2005, a play. Citing a longtime fondness for Southern writers, Miller-Stephany said he was "particularly thrilled to have The Rep produce the area premiere of Rebecca Gilman's brilliant adaptation of Carson McCullers' stirring masterwork."

Next up, there's "The School for Lies," David Ives' snarky rewrite of Moliere's "The Misanthrope," which was already pretty snarky to begin with. It's performed completely in rhymed couplets, and that will either soothe the bite of scripted vulgarities like "fecophile" or drive the nail of insult in even harder. Think: French aristocracy gets smack-talked, rap battle-style, but with words like "clitoris" and "LOL." "The School for Lies" runs Oct. 11-29.

Springtime is a favorite season for premiering new compositions, perhaps because the holiday that precedes it tends to be bubbling over with rewrites, sequels and 150 competing interpretations of Handel's "Messiah," and we're ready for something new and fresh when the thaw sets in. (Or, in 2017's case, the unsettling arrival of February mosquitoes.) In a refreshing move, lyricist Maggie-Kate Coleman, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher ("Tuesdays with Morrie," "Compleat Female Stage Beauty") and composer Andrew Cooke (on staff at The Rep's Education Department) have created a new chamber musical based on O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," to premiere Nov. 29-Dec. 24. "This beloved and ageless Christmas story has been copied, adapted and parodied countless times since it first appeared in print in 1905," Miller-Stephany said. "Although there are a number of stage versions available for licensing, my colleagues and I are eager to create a brand-new musical specifically for The Rep's loyal holiday audience."

And, if you're a David Sedaris fan, it's a good year to be in Little Rock. In addition to the humorist's appearance at the Robinson Center April 21, The Rep has added Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries" as a second holiday production, to be performed in the company's Black Box Theater Dec. 6-24, concurrently with "The Gift of the Magi." Curtain times for the two productions are staggered in case you want to make it a double feature.

The Rep begins 2018 with "The Call," a drama from Tanya Barfield that Miller-Stephany said "urges audience members to thoughtfully examine their established positions — both at home and as citizens of the world." The drama explores the complexities of infertility and adoption, the plurality of black identities and first-world ideas of how to define a family, and it will probably ask more questions of the audience than it will answer for them. It's exciting — and maybe even crucial — that this play is being put on in a red state where the words "family planning" can prompt kneejerk reactions on either side of the political spectrum, and where conversations about nonconventional approaches to parenthood can be stigmatized or hushed altogether. "The Call" runs Jan. 24-Feb. 11.

Joe Strummer, Brian Eno and Madonna have all confessed to a love for ABBA, and you can add Miller-Stephany to that list. "I love ABBA's music," he said, "and every once in a while, it's important to just let go and have fun." To that end, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' politely libertine jukebox musical "Mamma Mia!" runs March 14-April 8, 2018. It's a confection of a pop piece that probably doesn't require Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried to delight, especially with "Dancing Queen" and "Lay All Your Love on Me" in the mix. Don't fight it; you're gonna go, and you're probably gonna love it.

The Rep performed Yasmina Reza's Tony Award-winner "Art" in its 2001-02 season, and Reza's "God of Carnage" rounds out the 2017-18 season with a dark depiction of conflict resolution-gone-wrong, two couples wrestling with the socially tense aftermath of a playground scuffle between their two children. Miller-Stephany called it a "laugh-out-loud comedy of adults behaving badly," saying, "Perhaps civilization is truly only skin deep." Cliff Fannin Baker, who might very well know what Little Rock audiences yearn for better than anyone else, directs.

Single tickets for shows at The Rep range from $30 to $65, and season subscriptions begin at $132. Tickets for the 2017-18 season, or for the two remaining productions in the current season — "Jar the Floor" and "Godspell" — are available by calling The Rep's Box Office at 501-378-0405 or by visiting TheRep.org.

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