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New play 'Rantoul and Die': A little slice of Central Illinois

March 7, 2009 |  9:00 am

Rantoul producersWhat's a Rantoul?

That's the question raised by the title of Mark Roberts'  new play "Rantoul and Die," slated to have its world premiere in mid-May at Hollywood's Lillian Theater.

Actually, Rantoul is not a what -- it's a where: Rantoul, Ill., population 12,851, is a town 110 miles south of Chicago, 14 miles north of Champaign, and possibly best described as the Paris of the middle of nowhere. It's the little burg where Roberts -- an Illinois native who now serves as writer and executive producer of the CBS comedy "Two and a Half Men" -- chose to set "Rantoul and Die," billed as "A Romantic Comedy Wrapped in Razor Wire."

Don Foster -- a "Rantoul" producer and playwright Roberts' fellow writer/executive producer on "Two and Half Men" -- explains on behalf of Roberts that the title is a pun of sorts on the big billboard for a tool and die manufacturer on the highway leading into town. The "die" part -- well, that's a pun too; don't expect a lighthearted sitcom.

"Essentially what we think we're doing is bringing Central Illinois to Los Angeles -- and it's about time," jokes Foster.

Foster's co-producer on "Rantoul" is Stephen Eich, 53, who was managing director of Westwood's Geffen Playhouse until last June, when he abruptly left the job.  Eich is also something of an Illinois import, having come to the Geffen from a post as managing director of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. 

Since leaving the Geffen, Eich has not been hiding out in Rantoul -- he's been busy with new projects, including this new play. Find out why Eich left the Geffen, and what he's up to now, in my Sunday story.

--Diane Haithman

Photo: "Rantoul" producers Don Foster, left, and Stephen Eich. Credit: Erin Quigley