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updated: 6/22/2012 1:38 PM

From Eastland to Gacy, local history inspires new plays

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  • Lookingglass Theatre Company presents the world premiere of "Eastland: A New Musical" about the 1915 capsizing of the Lake Michigan excursion boat that claimed the lives of more than 800 people, most of them Western Electric Company employees.

      Lookingglass Theatre Company presents the world premiere of "Eastland: A New Musical" about the 1915 capsizing of the Lake Michigan excursion boat that claimed the lives of more than 800 people, most of them Western Electric Company employees.
    courtesy of Sean Williams

  • Charles Gardner plays Otha Jeffries, a troubled youth charged with arson-homicide who insists he's innocent, and David Parkes plays Dan Breen, the Chicago detective determined to get a confession out of him in John Conroy's "My Kind of Town," a world premiere at TimeLine Theatre.

      Charles Gardner plays Otha Jeffries, a troubled youth charged with arson-homicide who insists he's innocent, and David Parkes plays Dan Breen, the Chicago detective determined to get a confession out of him in John Conroy's "My Kind of Town," a world premiere at TimeLine Theatre.
    courtesy of Lara Goetsch

  • Sideshow Theatre Company presents the world premiere of "The Gacy Play" by Calamity West.

      Sideshow Theatre Company presents the world premiere of "The Gacy Play" by Calamity West.

  • Richard Cotovsky, left, plays Arthur Przybyszewski, the owner of a failing doughnut shop, who hires aspiring writer Franco Wicks (Preston Tate Jr.) in Mary-Arrchie Theatre's revival of Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts." It's coming to the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in July.

      Richard Cotovsky, left, plays Arthur Przybyszewski, the owner of a failing doughnut shop, who hires aspiring writer Franco Wicks (Preston Tate Jr.) in Mary-Arrchie Theatre's revival of Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts." It's coming to the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in July.
    courtesy of Sid Branca

  • Randy Steinmeyer, left, and Peter DeFaria reprise their roles as embattled Chicago cops in the commercial remount of Chicago Dramatists' production of Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain."

      Randy Steinmeyer, left, and Peter DeFaria reprise their roles as embattled Chicago cops in the commercial remount of Chicago Dramatists' production of Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain."
    Courtesy of Anthony Robert La Penna

  • Video: Eastland summary

  • Video: "A Steady Rain" clip 2

  • Video: "A Steady Rain" clip 1

 
 

Much has changed about Chicago and its sprawling suburbs over the years. But one thing hasn't: the power to inspire.


Writers from Carl Sandburg and Nelson Algren to Lorraine Hansberry and David Mamet have found inspiration in the city and its environs, penning slice-of-life dramas rooted in the area's often troubled history.

In recent years, playwrights Keith Huff, Brett Neveu, Tracy Letts and Bruce Norris have joined their ranks, adding to the canon tales conveyed in the city's distinct patois and delivered in that unflinching, meat-and-potatoes style characteristic of Chicago's vibrant storefront theater scene.

Case in point: the cop drama "A Steady Rain," by Arlington Heights native Huff. The play, which originated at Chicago Dramatists in 2007 and went on to a successful Broadway run in 2009, returns next month for a commercial remount featuring its original cast, director and artistic team. In fact, shows inspired by the history of the city and its suburbs have figured prominently this theater season and the last.

There's Lookingglass Theatre Company's "Eastland: A New Musical," inspired by the 1915 capsizing of a Lake Michigan excursion boat. The world premiere marks the end of a season that began with another original work, "The Great Chicago Fire."

Another tragedy-inspired show comes courtesy of Sideshow Theatre Company. "The Gacy Play," which begins previews Saturday, is about the serial killer who murdered 33 young men and boys, including one from Des Plaines, and buried most of them on his property in unincorporated Norwood Park Township.

Next month, the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights will host Mary-Arrchie Theatre's remount of "Superior Donuts," Letts' 2008 play set in Uptown, about an aging hippie and an aspiring young writer confronting a ruthless bookie and a changing neighborhood.

All of that comes on the heels of Chicago Dramatists' production of Jon Steinhagen's tragicomic "Blizzard '67." That play starred Fox Valley Repertory's John Gawlik and coincided with the 45th anniversary of the storm that stranded hundreds and killed dozens. It joined Steppenwolf Theatre's production of "Clybourne Park," Norris' 2012 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning examination of race inspired by Hansberry's Chicago classic "A Raisin in the Sun," while The Neo-Futurists weighed in last fall with "Burning Bluebeard," which chronicled the deadly 1903 fire at Chicago's Iroquois Theatre.

Nick Bowling, director of "My Kind of Town," John Conroy's play about the Chicago police torture scandal currently running at TimeLine Theatre, attributes the convergence to the "immense power and the beautiful dichotomy that is Chicago -- this beautiful city that is an incredibly tough and at times ugly place."

"That juxtaposition leaves it open for constant scrutiny and exploration," he said.

Not to mention infinite dramatic possibilities.

"If I were to speculate, I'd guess it's cyclical," said Andrew White, artistic director of Lookingglass Theatre, whose predilection for Chicago stories was evidenced in 1990's "The Jungle," the artfully imagined 2008 "Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day" and now "Eastland."

Eventually, the pendulum will swing back, White said. Until then, here are a few current productions that draw inspiration closer to home.

'My Kind of Town'

It took five years to bring John Conroy's "My Kind of Town" from the page to last month's world premiere on TimeLine Theatre's stage. But the play -- inspired by the torture allegations involving disgraced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and other officers -- had been more than 17 years in the making.

Investigative-reporter-turned-playwright Conroy got wind of the scandal in 1989. A year later he published "House of Screams," the first of 22 articles he wrote exposing defendants' claims that they were tortured by police officers -- with means that included electric shock and suffocation -- into making false confessions, some of which landed them on death row.

The only person charged with a crime was Burge, who was fired in 1993 and convicted in 2010 on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to the statements he made about the alleged torture.

Developed through Writers' Bloc, the play had several staged readings before Conroy submitted it to theater companies. All but TimeLine passed on it.

"We saw the potential," Bowling said. "John's writing is beautiful and very smart and there's such passion. We knew the story was right for Chicago."

The challenge was to ensure "My Kind of Town" remained a work of art and not agitprop.

"From the beginning John wanted to see both sides of the story," said Bowling, noting that by the end of the play, every character has dirty hands.

Conroy holds out a slim hope that the play will "prick the city's conscience" and force officials to address what happened. At the very least, he hopes it will prompt people to examine their conscience.

He said people are able to discern torture elsewhere, but have a hard time identifying it in their own communities. And that has to change.

"I would love for people to question themselves about what they knew, when they knew it and what they did about it. And if they did nothing, why it didn't seem to matter," he said.

'The Gacy Play'

Calamity West wasn't born in late 1978 when police began to exhume the 29 victims buried on the suburban property and below the home of John Wayne Gacy Jr. West, a Missouri native, didn't know who the serial killer was until Sideshow Theatre artistic director Jonathan L. Green told her about the contractor and part-time clown executed in 1994 for murdering 33 young men and boys.

Inspired by "morbid curiosity," West began researching Gacy. Her efforts culminated in "The Gacy Play," which begins previews Saturday at Theater Wit.

Eschewing violence in favor of suspense, West set out to explore those "gray areas" of Gacy's psyche in the play, which takes place in 1975, right around Christmas and just before his killing spree escalated. It includes imagined conversations between the killer and his namesake, film star John Wayne, and between the killer and three of his victims.

The task of negotiating those gray areas falls to actor Andy Luther, who was initially leery about taking on the role.

"True evil is often a chameleon," Luther said. "That's the kind of guy I'm trying to play."

"Evil manifests itself in many ways," said Luther, adding that in Gacy's case it manifested itself as the guy next door.

Reports of Gacy's childhood trauma, dysfunctional family and abusive father intrigued West, as did the self-pity and self-hatred that drove him to be the best neighbor, best businessman and best husband -- and to ultimately fail at all of them.

"We need to have a reason why these horrific things can happen," she said.

'A Steady Rain'

"A Steady Rain" has traveled extensively since its 2007 world premiere at Chicago Dramatists. Keith Huff's gripping two-hander about beleaguered Chicago cops whose lives spiral out of control following a botched domestic disturbance call has been produced on Broadway, around the country and internationally. Now the drama returns in a remount produced by the Chicago Commercial Collective that reunites the original creative team, including director Russ Tutterow and actors Randy Steinmeyer and Peter DeFaria.

"We've never considered asking anyone else," Tutterow said of Steinmeyer and DeFaria. "If we were ever going to do it again, we wanted to do it with those two guys. They're the show."

Huff, who used Steinmeyer's performance as a blueprint to advise other actors on navigating the play, says the performances have even more depth and energy now.

"I just love what they're doing with it … Their presence is even more gritty and real," said the playwright, whose follow-up, "The Detective's Wife," premiered last year at Writers' Theatre and whose "Big Light, Big City" opens next year at Lookingglass Theatre.

Unfolding mostly in monologue form, "A Steady Rain" breaks all the rules. It shows instead of tells, Tutterow said. Still, it works.

"It's like a ride," he said. "You can't get off until it's over."

And thanks to some slight reference tweaks, it travels well. "A Steady Rain" ran five months in Paris and toured France and Spain. It has had productions in Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Canada. Currently, the show is running in Hungary and Greece and is on tour in South America.

Huff always wanted to write a play that packs an emotional wallop: one that demands audiences engage and that doesn't deliver its moral topped with a neat little bow.

"That's what's great about the theater," he said. "People aren't going to see a story but to have an experience."

'Eastland: A New Musical'

One winter afternoon Lookingglass Theatre artistic director Andrew White took a video camera to the banks of the Chicago River between LaSalle and Clark streets -- the spot where the excursion boat S.S. Eastland capsized on July 24, 1915, killing more than 800 people, most of them employees of the Western Electric Company.

Not far from where a plaque commemorates one of the country's worst tragedies, White interviewed passers-by, some of whom take the route every day. Only one had ever heard of the Eastland, and his recollection was sketchy.

That so few people, including lifelong Chicagoans, knew about the "forgotten tragedy" got White thinking.

"We were not long after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. I was looking at the disasters that loom large for us now and change entire frames of reference," he said.

How long would it take to forget, he wondered?

That inspired "Eastland: The Musical," with book and lyrics by White and a score by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman.

White began working on the show in 2005. He finished three days before last week's opening after adding new characters and lyrics following the seventh night of previews.

He was determined that "Eastland" not only recount the disaster, but also serve as a meditation on mortality and the fragility of life.

Invariably, disasters like this remind us of that.

"We have brief moments of recognition of our mortality and how we should be spending our lives," he said. During those times, we're conscious of those things that make life valuable and precious, White said. Unfortunately, our daily lives intrude and we forget.

"Eastland" reminds us.

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