Back on stage, Kirk Players return to the group’s theatrical roots in Mundelein

Group to perform play they put on for their first benefit in 1966

MUNDELEIN – Finally able to return to live theater, the Mundelein-based Kirk Players are going back to where it all began.

The community theater group was born as much out of a mission as a desire to entertain when original members first presented a benefit performance of “Night of January 16th” in 1966 at the Kirk of the Lakes Presbyterian Church in Mundelein.

Nearly 56 years later, the Kirk Players are still at it.

Out of a bit of nostalgia, the group once again will perform ”Night of January 16th.” Written by Russian-American author Ayn Rand and first produced on Broadway in 1935, the play is set in a courtroom during a murder trial. As a theatrical twist, 12 audience members will serve as the jurors.

The show, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 16 and 2 p.m. Oct. 17 at Mundelein High School, 1350 W. Hawley St., Mundelein, is the Kirk Players’ first live performance in nearly a year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“I was so excited for this show to come back,” said Gretchen Grassl, artistic director for Kirk Players, who usually enjoys a backstage role in the group’s productions. “I was like, ‘I want a little part.’ It’s been so fun. We’re excited about it. It’s fun to be back and to have an audience in front of us.”

Grassl, who joined Kirk Players about 11 years ago with her husband, Peter, after the couple took part in one of the group’s summer workshops, will play the judge in the production. Grassl lives in Arlington Heights, but said her devotion to Kirk Players and the community keeps her coming back to Mundelein.

Tickets for the production cost $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for children at the door or

Money raised goes back into the community.

That’s how the group’s founder, the late John W. Lynn, wanted it.

Kirk Players was born out of a love for both the community and the arts. Since then, members from throughout Lake County and beyond have poured their time and energy into at least three productions a year – all given the freedom to pursue their areas of interest, whether on stage or off.

They’ve become family, members say.

“I do this just for the pure enjoyment of the arts,” said Marilee Rusiniak of Mundelein, a longtime member of Kirk Players who plays the court clerk in the production. “There’s a community that comes from it. These people are not just Players. I consider them part of my family.”

Rusiniak performed in her first Kirk Players production about 12 years ago and became a member of the group about a decade ago. Growing up, she actually had taken part in a summer theater program for young adults hosted by Kirk Players.

“Kirk Players has been part of my entire life,” said Rusiniak, who was taught by Jon Leslie Lynn, the eldest son of Kirk Players founder John W. Lynn, as part of Mundelein High School’s theater program.

“It’s just a wonderful group to be part of and such an integral part of Mundelein,” she said. “It really is about community. We care about the people we’re working alongside. Everyone has a passion for the arts, and we just want to be able to give back with these gifts we have of performance.”

While the original production of “Night of January 16th” raised money to help Vietnamese children with cleft palates, funds now provide ongoing contributions to arts and education throughout the community, including a John W. Lynn Performing Arts Scholarship.

Named after the founder of Kirk Players, the scholarship provides $1,000 to a graduating senior at Mundelein High School or Carmel High School who has “achieved the highest levels in the worlds of theater, music and dance, as well as academics and community service.” The student must be intending to pursue a degree in the performing arts.

Through theater camps and a March children’s show, Kirk Players aims to inspire future lovers of the art of theater.

The group has 39 active members, but hosts open casting for each production, with outside performers welcome to take part, Grassl said. In the upcoming show, 16 of the roles are played by Kirk Players, while four roles will be performed by guest actors, she said.

“We also welcome people doing our tech and things like that who are just interested in learning that,” she said. “We’re always looking for volunteers.”

When you’re part of Kirk Players, you’re part of everything that goes into the productions, said Mike Lieberman, who became a member of the group in 2006 and will perform as one of the witnesses in the production.

“This group is just a wonderful, wonderful group of people. I’ve made some really good friends in my time with the group,” said Liberman, who, unlike some members of the group, doesn’t have a background in theater, just a passion for performing.

“It’s just a great group to be with because it’s got this wide range, and there’s acceptance up and down the line and so many different facets of the production you can get involved with to move it along.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the performers will wear masks during the production. It’s just one of several challenges the group has faced and overcome since the pandemic began, Grassl said.

Kirk Players put on a few virtual productions through YouTube this past year and a half. The effort inspired creativity and allowed members to work with people they likely wouldn’t have otherwise, Grassl said.

“We tried to do whatever we could virtually just to keep people connected,” she said. “I’m really glad to get back to live theater, but I think the challenges created an interesting year.”