All Over Creation: My Kind of Town

A trip to see theatre in Chicago brings one writer closer to home

Down to the river: the cast of <i>Eastland</i>
Down to the river: the cast of Eastland (Photo courtesy of Sean Williams)

In my five days in Chicago last week, I managed to survive nearly five hours with a pack of hopeless drunks, torture by the police, and a steamer tipping over in the Chicago River. You might think such punishing experiences would've put a damper on this little getaway to the Windy City, but no, that wasn't the case, since they all occurred – as I expect you've guessed – in the theatre.

I'd joined several dozen of my colleagues in the American Theatre Critics Association – we're the group that recommends resident theatres across the land for the regional Tony Award and presents some of the country's most prestigious playwriting prizes – to sample the current wares on Chi-town stages. Every year, the ATCA membership convenes in a different spot in the U.S. or Canada to get a feel for the theatre being made there by seeing productions and meeting area artists. Last summer, we decamped to Ashland, Ore., for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (regional Tony winner, 1983); this year, we hit Chicago ... again. In the 35 years of these conferences, ATCA has visited a handful of locales outside New York more than once, but Chicago is the only city that it's visited four times. But then, what other American city has a theatre bench as deep as Chi-town's? – more than 200 active companies, five of which have scored that coveted regional Tony. If cities competed in drama the way they do baseball, Chicago would bring home the pennant damn near every season.

And the work that I and my critical confreres saw on this trip again showed why. That pack of hopeless drunks? Those were the irredeemable barflies of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, brought back to pickled, pipe-dreaming life (rather, half-life) in a big-shouldered revival from the Goodman Theatre (regional Tony, 1992). Yes, at four and three-quarters hours, the show tested one's stamina, but every minute of that span was charged with a fierce commitment to O'Neill's dark vision – darkness that was quite literal for the first hour of director Robert Falls' production, what with the stage sunk in shadow and the gloom lifting at an achingly slow pace (the light controlled masterfully by designer Natasha Katz). Fused with the prolonged stillness of the bodies slumped over tables like so many forgotten corpses, the play's dead-end saloon – Harry Hope's, if you can stomach the irony – became this netherworld of lost souls trapped for eternity. Brian Dennehy, as disillusioned anarchist Larry Slade, held court with the weary sneer of a cynic who, despite his jaundiced view of life, still can't let it go, while as his opposite number, the salesman Hickey, Nathan Lane strutted and crowed with the unrelenting bonhomie of the born huckster. Lane's musical-comedy roots served him well in this dramatic role, creating a foundation of good humor and charm for the beloved Hickey not unlike that of The Music Man's charismatic con man, Harold Hill. (Indeed, as Lane spilled his character's grim secret, I had a flash of this Iceman as a bleak, alternate-universe sequel to that musical.) The strong acting throughout – with Stephen Ouimette's alternately blistering and pitiable turn as Harry Hope worth special mention – and the meticulous design and technical work made this the kind of ambitious, uncompromising treatment of a heavyweight drama that isn't seen much anymore – certainly not in Austin, at least on that scale.

But if that trip to the Goodman left me thinking of the differences between theatre there and theatre here, subsequent productions brought me closer to home. Lookingglass Theatre Company (regional Tony, 2011) premiered a haunting musical, Eastland, that took audiences inside one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history: the capsizing of a steamship in the Chicago River that resulted in the loss of 844 lives, many of them women and children. It was, without question, a tale drawn from that city's past, but in its telling, I caught echoes of Austin. Scenic designer Dan Ostling's bare stage, with its thick wooden planks and trap doors, called to mind the sets for Paper Chairs' Machinal and Baal, and some of director Amanda Dehnert's striking images – such as dripping wet clothes suspended in air to represent the dead pulled from the river – shared the theatrical punch of those conjured by, say, Dustin Wills and Dave Steakley. And the performers boasted the musical expertise and emotional power that I've long associated with actors at Zach Theatre. Similarly, in the drama My Kind of Town, TimeLine Theatre Company investigated a genuine Chicago scandal – the use of torture by police to coerce confessions – and while you might not find a comparable story on a local stage, the intimacy of the space and intensity of the acting were the kind you find in theatres all across Austin. We may have a long way to go to catch Chicago in terms of numbers, not to mention in terms of Tonys, but I came home from this trip seeing Austin as much closer to the Second City in spirit and theatrical sensibility than I'd previously imagined.

My kind of town, indeed.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Chicago theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company, TimeLine Theatre Company, Paper Chairs, Zach Theatre, Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Dustin Wills, Dave Steakley

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