The Guthrie Theater has world-class facilities and resources that rank it with, say, New York's Lincoln Center or Chicago's Goodman. Yet the plays in the theater's recently announced 2011-2012 season suggest its ambitions are much closer to home, with some of its shows competing with Theatre in the Round ("Charley's Aunt") and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres ("Roman Holiday").

When the company moved into its three-theater riverfront complex five years ago, it was with an expanded mission to become an "American theater center." It has been fitfully trying to meet its goal, going full-blast on the Tony Kushner Festival, for example, then drawing back to familiar fare, even when some of those mission-central titles (like "The Winter's Tale") did not fare well at the box office.

It is coincidental that director Joe Dowling unveiled the new Guthrie season on the same day that Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama -- the second in recent years to be won by playwrights associated with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

Admittedly, the Pulitzers are just one barometer of contemporary American theater. Still, to see plays by recent Pulitzer winners in the past decade, we have gone not to the Guthrie but to Mixed Blood, Park Square, the Jungle and Ten Thousand Things. They have done such plays as Lynn Nottage's "Ruined," Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," David Auburn's "Proof" and John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt."

The Guthrie's Kushner festival, which involved all three stages, was world-class. Further, the Guthrie could argue that it knows its audience -- what sells, and what risks can be taken. Dowling considers it a bedrock responsibility to fill the theaters. Given the organization's $28 million annual budget, his concern is warranted -- though some theater denizens argue that programming has become hostage to the new building's economics.

Risks and rewards

Setting that issue aside, one question that remains is whether audiences have rewarded the Guthrie when it does take risks. And how does that affect decisions?

Dowling said in July 2009 that he felt the just-concluded Kushner festival redefined the Guthrie -- a proposition that seems at odds with the season just announced. But the Kushner numbers themselves hold an interesting mirror to what audiences prefer. "Caroline or Change," the lively musical on the thrust stage, sold 58,669 tickets -- a capacity of 83 percent in a 1,100-seat house. "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures" was the highly anticipated world premiere. It sold 23,000 tickets, 69 percent in the 700-seat proscenium. That gives a clue as to what audiences will buy.

Other examples of audience taste abound. The world premiere of "Little House on the Prairie" had a winning title and little else -- but it did sellout business in 2008. "The Scottsboro Boys," which had several things going for it -- controversy, Kander and Ebb, Susan Stroman, and the anticipation of Broadway -- similarly did great business. "The 39 Steps" last fall was a comic triumph and was extended.

Tougher material is a tougher sell. The Robert Bly adaptation of "Peer Gynt," with Mark Rylance, was beautiful but struggled to find an audience. "The Master Butchers Singing Club," another literary adaptation last year, actually closed early. "The Great Game: Afghanistan," an important piece of political theater imported from London last fall, drew sparse houses.

In the upcoming season, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's "The Burial at Thebes," directed by Marcela Lorca (the sole female director in the slate of 14 plays) with original music by J.D. Steele, approaches that degree of ambition in the proscenium stage. It's worth watching to see whether it hits the populist sweet spot.

Should "Thebes" draw modestly, rib-tickling chestnuts "Charley's Aunt" and "Hay Fever" stand ready to cushion the blow. And for those preferring theater as a kind of escapist opiate, there are two musicals that follow the "name-recognition" formula (Judy Garland in "End of the Rainbow" and Cole Porter in "Roman Holiday"). Even though both musicals are listed as American premieres, is there anything really new about Garland or a 1953 movie with Cole Porter songs?