For Wheaton veterans advocate, art inspired life
Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon was just 19 years old when he turned to Bob Adams for advice playing the role of a Vietnam War veteran.
"It was a very intense story, a very intense life that this (character) led, and I really didn't have anything to go on," said Shannon, who now stars in HBO's hit "Boardwalk Empire" series. "I didn't feel like I could possibly fathom what this guy was going through. But Bob helped give me the confidence to pull it off."
About the actors
Background: Grew up in Kentucky; attended New Trier Township High School in Winnetka; now lives in New York City
On stage: Co-founder of A Red Orchid Theatre; has appeared in "Bug," "The Pillowman," "Simpatico"
On film: "Man of Steel," "Take Shelter," "Revolutionary Road," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
On TV: "Boardwalk Empire," "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit"
Quotable: "I'm not inherently a military kind of person. But I have historically — in the theater and also in films — done a lot of military work, which is kind of fascinating to me. Most recently, I was the general of an entire alien planet."
Guy Van Swearingen
Background: Lifelong Chicago resident, lieutenant at Chicago Fire Department
On stage: Co-founder of A Red Orchid Theatre; has appeared in "The Sea Horse," "The Opponent," "Simpatico"
On film: "Take Shelter," "Public Enemies," "The Weather Man"
On TV: "Chicago Fire," "Underemployed," "Boss"
Quotable: "I think it's important we're comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, so to speak. And so that's our life's work and sometimes people see that and there's an inspiration that can be drawn from it."
Twenty years later, Adams, of Winfield, credits Shannon and others in the Chicago acting community for boosting his confidence, too.
Adams, 65, a former combat medic, was reluctant for decades to speak about his Vietnam experience. But through his work with Shannon and others, he was inspired to write his own play, and with another veteran opened in 2007 the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton.
After he advised Shannon on "Shrapnel in the Heart," Adams soon found himself recruited by Chicago stage veteran Guy Van Swearingen to do the same kind of work on a production of "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial."
Meanwhile, Adams began piecing together his own story, "Place of Angels," which Swearingen later produced, donating proceeds as startup money for the homeless shelter.
Since its 2000 debut at A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago, the play has generated more than $75,000 for the nonprofit.
"It's interesting how the theater can influence and change lives," said Swearingen, a Red Orchid founder, actor and Chicago fire lieutenant. "I've seen people come to see shows and get married afterward or come to see shows and quit jobs. It has the ability to have a very profound impact."
The impact on Adams is evident in the shelter, a meticulously maintained, quaint two-story house on North West Street in Wheaton.
Since its inception, nearly 70 veterans have called the place home as they worked to get back on their feet, receiving on-site counseling, job training and financial guidance, among other services.
The shelter, which recently received a $440,000 grant from the Veterans Affairs Department, also offers independent living for at-risk veterans at a second location and opened a free veterans commissary stocked with clothing and furniture.
On a sunny Friday earlier this month, Adams invited Shannon and Swearingen to visit Wheaton and check it all out.
Shannon, who was in town for a run of "Simpatico" with Swearingen at Red Orchid, said it exceeded his expectations.
"It's pretty overwhelming to walk around and see this beautiful sanctuary for these people who have suffered so much," he said. "You see people on the streets and they're like turtles without shells. So vulnerable, and they need help so much. And Bob's helping them. It's a pretty special thing."
Swearingen, who has appeared on the NBC series "Chicago Fire" and played several roles on the big screen, was equally impressed.
"It's really remarkable," he said, though neither actor takes credit for the idea.
For Adams, inviting the actors to visit was about expressing gratitude, he said — and also making the story known.
"You never know how life will go, but I don't imagine I would be where I am today and doing what I do today" if not for the arts, he said. "I really feel like both of these men were instrumental in moving the concept, moving me back into the veterans community."
Adams, now a clinical social worker, said the shelter operates under a simple principle.
"The first thing they told us and the last thing they reminded us is, Marines don't leave anyone behind," he said. "That's the guiding spirit behind this organization."
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