Summer is when theater moves outdoors to mate with picnics, wine, sun and stars. Indeed, dozens of Midwest theaters operate only in the summer, and several are destinations all by themselves.
Theaters highlighted below all are within an easy day's drive of Chicago and near outstanding vacation attractions. The theater experience can be part of a getaway that comes with a Victorian B&B, river rafting or hiking. Theaters are listed by state: Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. Prices quoted are adult single tickets ( less booking fees ). All theaters offer various discounts, passes and subscriptions. Theater websites are chock-full of info about dining options, accommodations and things to do. Please remember: outdoor venues may require bug spray, sunblock for matinees and something warm against the chilly night air.
Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Bloomington, June 27-Aug. 10For its 42nd season, Illinois Shakespeare Festival ( ISF ) presents As You Like It, a media-saturated modern version of Julius Caesar ( called simply Caesar ) and an adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Performances are outdoors at Tudoresque Ewing Manor, with lovely gardens, picnics and roving pre-show musicians. Stay two days, see three plays and enjoy Bloomington's Victorian architecture, freshly-sourced restaurants, friendly B&Bs, country antiquing and tour the Beer Nuts factory. Tickets: $20-$55; illinoisshakes.com.
Little Theatre-on-the-Square, Sullivan, June 5-Aug. 25Founded in 1957 by the son of a farming family, the Little Theatre is the only Equity troupe between the ISF ( see above ) and St. Louis. Now a non-profit company, it offers musicals in classic summer stock two-week runs, among them Million Dollar Quartet, The Little Mermaid, Newsies and The Full Monty. There also are daytime shows for kids. The 420-seat indoor, air-conditioned Little Theatre fronts a real Victorian town square in Illinois Amish Country, close to Lake Shelbyville recreations and the Lincoln shrines. Tickets: $37.50; the littletheatre.org.
Timber Lake Playhouse, Mt. Carroll, May 30-Sept. 22Close to historic Mississippi river towns ( Savannah, Galena ), Mississippi Palisades State Park and Apple River Canyon State Park, Timber Lake Playhouse has offered summer stock musicals and plays since 1962 in a casual indoor pavilion with a Broadway-sized stage. The 2019 line-up features two-week runs of Man of LaMancha, Into the Woods, Steel Magnolias and Newsies among six shows in all. Tickets $30; timberlakeplayhouse.org.
American Players Theatre, Spring Green, Wisconsin, June 8-Nov. 1740th season! American Players Theatre ( APT ) is one of America's leading destination theaters, close to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, the Wisconsin River ( canoeing, fishing, swimming ), Tower Hill State Park and Spring Green's country charm and fine restaurants. APT's beautiful grounds offer free parking, picnic tables and gas-fired grills. Plays are in an 1100-seat outdoor amphitheater and a 200-seat indoor air conditioned space. Among the nine works for 2019 are Twelfth Night, She Stoops to Conquer, Macbeth and plays by August Wilson, Ibsen, Shaw and Tennessee Williams. Tickets: $52-$88 ( discounted 20% through June 7 ); americanplayers.org.
Door Shakespeare, Bjorklunden Estate, Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin, June 19-Aug. 24Since 1995, Door Shakespeare has offered outdoor classics on the wooded grounds of a 400-acre former private estate on the so-called "quiet side" of Wisconsin's Door County peninsula, due north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. The grounds offer walking trails, a garden and picnicking. This season's rotating repertory is Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Tickets: $32; doorshakespeare.com.
Northern Sky Theater, Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek, Wisconsin, June 12-Aug. 24Also in Door Country, Northern Sky has offered family-friendly, 90-minute musicals since 1990. For 2019: We Like It Where? ( about a town left off the Wisconsin state map ), Dairy Heirs ( "family farming moo-sical" ) and Windjammers ( 1876 setting inspired by Great Lakes sailing stories ). Peninsula State Park on Green Bay has camping, hiking, biking, golf, swimming and a 1880s lighthouse. There's an entrance fee for day-trippers/campers, but it's free to enter just for the evening show. Tickets: $22-$30; northerskytheater.com. A Sept.-Oct. indoor season continues in nearby Ephraim, WI.
Peninsula Players, Fish Creek, Wisconsin, June 18-Sept. 20Even more Door. Since 1935, Peninsula Players ( PP ) has presented classic summer stock with a resident company. For 2019: A Trick of Light ( world premiere comedy ), A Murder Is Announced ( Agatha Christie whodunit ), Ghost the Musical, Silent Sky ( drama ) and George Washington's Teeth ( comedy ). PP is summer home for many familiar Chicago stars such as artistic director Greg Vinkler. Directly on Green Bay, PP has plenty of free parking, gardens, picnic grounds, a bar, perfect sunset views and a nightly post-show bonfire. Tickets: $39-$48 ( 2018 prices ); peninsulaplayers.com.
Barn Theatre, Augusta, Michigan, June 4-Sept. 1Classic summer stock for 73 years! The Barnit really IS an old dairy barnis a non-profit organization where youthful apprentices work alongside veteran Equity guest artists. For 2019: Sweeney Todd, Big, Steel Magnolias, Mamma Mia and Evil Dead the Musical among eight shows in all. Also, the Barn's bar hosts a nightly post-show cabaret. Tiny Augusta is half-way between Kalamazoo ( home of Gibson guitars ) and Battlecreek ( home of Kellogg's ), which have the nearest decent amenities. Tickets: $39-$48; barntheatreschool.org.
Lakeside Shakespeare Company, Frankfort, Michigan, July 23-Aug. 2Popular Chicago actor Elizabeth Laidlaw founded this company in 2003, offering FREE summertime Shakespeare. For its 16th season, Lakeside Shakes presents a gender-switch Two Gentlewomen of Verona and The Rover ( 17th century swashbuckler by Aphra Benn ). Performances are at Tank Hill ( picnics encouraged ) in Frankfort, which isn't far from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore and Traverse City. Free ( donations are accepted ); lakesideshakespeare.org.
Mason Street Warehouse, Saugatuck, Michigan, June 21-Sept. 1For 2019, the Mason Street Warehouse ( within Saugatuck Center for the Arts ) presents three-week runs of In the Heights, Unnecessary Farce and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Twin beach towns Saugatuck and Douglas are popular holiday spots with Chicago's LGBTQ communities, boasting numerous galleries, excellent restaurants and B&Bs. Town traffic is heavy and parking is limited, so plan carefully. Tickets: $41.50-$57.50; masonstreetwarehouse.org.
Round Barn Theatre at Amish Acres, Nappanee, Indiana, May 24-Oct. 13This beautiful, unusual 1911 round barn is part of the much-larger Amish Acres Historic Farm & Heritage Resort ( restaurants with hearty meals, lodging, shops, buggy rides, historic buildings, Amish lifestyle demonstrations ). You can do the whole shot, a dinner/show combo or just see the professional production. Summer shows include Freaky Friday ( musical ), Big River, Anne of Green Gables ( musical ) and Plain & Fancy. Two more shows extend the season to Dec. 31. Tickets ( show only ): $32.95; amishacres.com