Scandal in the Second City: Two Remarkable Shows From Chicago

A new musical—based on little-remembered ship disaster—and a play about a corrupt police unit make for captivating theater

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Sean Williams / Lookingglass Theater Company

One mark of success for a local theater is getting national attention: reviews from national critics, a production that moves to New York, maybe even a transfer to Broadway. But local theater has another, perhaps more important, mission: giving life on stage to the events, issues and stories that have meaning for the community it serves. Chicago theater has been justly celebrated for its achievements in the first category, thanks to well-traveled companies like the Goodman and Steppenwolf. Less often noted is how well Chicago theater fulfills its latter mission.

I discovered that last weekend, when I saw two remarkable shows on a brief visit to Chicago. Both come from smaller theaters that I had never attended before (though I had seen some of their work elsewhere) and deal with subjects that are probably too “local,” too uniquely Chicago, to have much theatrical life beyond the shores of Lake Michigan. But both demonstrate the vibrancy, depth and community commitment of Chicago’s always exciting theater scene.

Eastland: A New Musical, based on little-remembered ship disaster, comes from the Lookingglass Theater Company, one small Chicago troupe that has certainly not lacked for national attention — the home base of many of Mary Zimmerman’s innovative stage pieces (Metamorphoses) and recipient of last year’s special Tony Award for excellence in regional theater. Like other musicals based on disasters and great physical exploits (Floyd Collins, Queen of the Mist), Eastland takes an unpromising real-world subject and transforms it with imaginative stage ideas.

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On July 24, 1915, the S.S. Eastland, a tall, sleek passenger ship, was packed with 2,500 people — employees of the nearby Western Electric plant and their families, all headed for a daylong cruise and picnic on the shores of Lake Michigan. Just after 7 in the morning, while still docked on the Chicago River, the unstable ship listed sharply to its port side and simply toppled over. Trapped inside the submerged boat, 844 people lost their lives — more than died in the Chicago Fire. And yet even most Chicagoans have never heard of it.

So Eastland — written by Andrew White, with music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman — performs a valuable service simply by rescuing a piece of forgotten history. The play focuses on the human stories that converge on the day of the tragedy: a family of Norwegian immigrants, a young wife who loses track of her six-year-old son, the ship’s benign but clueless captain, an undertaker who arrives to collect bodies and runs out of coffins. The elegiac mood, a sense of hard-working, turn-of-the-century Americans betrayed by the American dream, is heightened by the somber, folk-ballad flavor of the music — much of it played (on guitars and violins mostly) onstage by members of the cast.

This disaster itself, as staged by director Amanda Denhert, is conveyed with simple but evocative effects. Passengers cling for life through trap doors on the stage; people “swim” underwater suspended on wires behind a scrim; each body that is recovered is represented onstage — in the play’s most haunting image — by an empty suit of clothes, hoisted on a wooden peg and dripping wet.

Eastland is handicapped by the sheer banality of the accident it is chronicling: no iceberg, no morality tale of hubris brought crashing down, not even much drama really. The creators often seem to be treading water looking for fresh angles. Too much time, for example, is spent on a heroic passenger who makes repeated dives to recover bodies, matching his time underwater with the endurance record set by Harry Houdini — who shows up, Ragtime style, as a fanciful character. More attention could have been paid to the reasons behind the disaster, and the history of a ship that apparently many pilots had been wary of for years. But that, of course, would have been a different work — not this worthy, adventurous and often moving one.

Timeline Theater Company

My Kind of Town — a new play from the enterprising, pint-sized TimeLine Theater Company — is based on real-life events much fresher in the memory of most Chicagoans. In the 1980s, charges began to surface that detectives in a police unit called Area 2 were torturing suspects — electroshocks to the genitals and near-suffocation with plastic bags — to extract confessions. It took several years, and a series of crusading articles by journalist John Conroy, for the scandal to finally prompt action: Commander Jon Burge, who oversaw the operation, was fired, dozens of cases were reopened, some death-row sentences were commuted. Now Conroy himself has turned the whole shocking affair into a play.

He has not, as you might expect from a reporter putting his biggest story on stage, produced a conventional docudrama. Outside the theater, on a detailed series of wall displays, we get a full account of the scandal. Inside, we focus on just one fictional victim, a young drug dealer named Otha Jeffries (Charles Gardner), hauled in for questioning about a double-murder, and the various people who are involved in his case: his divorced mother (Ora Jones), whose naïve persistence helps get his conviction reviewed; the brutal police detective (David Parkes), a beast with a human face, and his devoted, in-denial wife (Danica Monroe); an assistant district attorney (Maggie Kettering) who takes Otha’s confession and may know more than she’s telling; and, most intriguingly, a veteran black police officer (A.C. Smith) who acts as both sentinel and enabler of the basement horrors of Area 2.

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Under Nick Bowling’s tense, empathetic direction, all of this is told with spellbinding power. The personal stories are woven together skillfully, often intermingling in the same tiny stage space. Conroy is as tough a dramatist as he is a journalist: he doesn’t settle for easy melodramatics, neat resolutions or moral absolutes. Victims of torture are not necessarily innocent. Good people make moral compromises. Bad ones have their justifications. And in the real world, we often have to be satisfied with partial victories.

My Kind of Town doesn’t even give us the catharsis of a partial victory. The play merely opens up the complex issues and leaves much unresolved. This matches the real-life scandal, in which some but hardly all the police culprits were punished, and which was ignored by the city’s power establishment, and even much of the press, for far too long. But not, fortunately, by the Chicago’s daring and dynamic theater community.

Zoglin, TIME’s theater critic and a former assistant managing editor, is the author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America.