Written by Andy White
A touching requiem for the hundreds of dreams that died too soon
|Lookingglass Theatre presents|
Review by Clint May
Last April, CNN writer Stephen Cox commemorated the sinking of the HMS Titanic with an article pondering why that disaster above all others stands out in history. He observes the disaster has “dramatic interest”—particularly the victims’ “drama of choice.” There’s a pretty cogent justification for its enduring place in our cultural nomenclature. Although writer Andy White began work on Eastland before this article debuted, I imagine he’d now find it a bit galling, since there were indeed moments of human tragedy and heroism in the events surrounding the Eastland despite the rapidity of the actual misfortune that claimed 844 lives on a cool day in July. Eastland stands as a refutation to Cox’s argument and a time capsule for an event that – despite the monumental loss of life – remains surprising news even to Chicago natives today (not unlike the Iroquois Theater Fire). In an hour and a half, White honorably memorializes an event that occurred in the blink of an eye. In place of that instantaneous moment, this musical is a “blink that lasts forever.”
Holidays being rare for the employees of Western Electric, this was to be a day of grand importance and the air was filled with excitement. This was a respite from the crushing boredom for the mostly immigrant workforce that toiled away in the factory under sweltering conditions. Dressed in their best, the over 2500 passengers were prepared to disembark and head to a company picnic in Indiana. The Eastland had long been known to be top heavy steamer ship, and the sinking of the Titanic just three years prior meant they had been forced by law to double their lifeboats for a safety measure that would actually make it more dangerous. Early warning signs that the ship was straining under the load of so many persons were addressed but proved ineffective. The massive ship rolled to its side and sank in the muddy, polluted waters of the Chicago River between LaSalle and Clark street. Lifeboats meant to save lives had no time to be used.
Using real and fictional characters (White stresses this is a work of fiction), Eastland weaves together several back stories for victims of that fateful day. Their stories flicker back and forth from their lives before to during the event, and even from beyond the grave. Simple lives with simple dreams and longings, they are not the grand folks that sank with the Titanic.
When the ship begins listing in its early warnings, a stalwart uncle (Lawrence E. Distasi) heartbreakingly reminds his family: That’s what ships do, and he should know after all, as he had endured the arduous journey made to reach America. Certainly a ship in a big metropolitan area on a simple journey like this couldn’t be as dangerous as the crossing they made for a better life. Chicago was going to be a place where they would make their dreams come true, if not for themselves, then for their children.
Eastland is an ambitious project that is not without some engineering flaws of its own. The flickering of the timelines is a handy effect to contrast the hardscrabble lives of these people against the ignominy of their deaths, but it makes it hard to cling to any one character long enough to become truly vested in their story. Tonally shifting from chamber opera to folk music to ragtime is interesting, but at times disconcerting (the darkly jolly number given to the real life undertaker Otto Muchna (also played by DiStasi) is a great piece, but a little too darkly humorous in the face of a production that is a homily to these lives). If the show had been longer this would be easier to digest, but compacted into 90-minutes, it’s a dizzying array. It also experiments with expressionism, giving Reggie “The Human Frog” Bowles, a real-life 17yo who dived for hours into the filthy waters to dredge up 40 victims, his own Houdini to sit next to him, encouraging and mocking him to hold his breath for ever longer periods of time. It’s interesting as a conceit, but not entirely necessary—in fact, I found it devalued Reggie’s altruism by converting it into a competition with the escape artist. White referenced several books for this piece, and perhaps in one of them Reggie reflects on Houdini as an inspiration, but as the hero of the piece I didn’t think he needed the extra storyline shoehorned in.
Playing multiple roles and showcasing multiple skills in singing and playing instruments, the entire cast absolutely shines in their versatility. Michael Barrow Smith is one of the best , most distinctive voices in Chicago theater, and playing the real life Captain Pedersen, he commands the stage with his august presence and also plays a pretty mean folk guitar. Ensemble member Doug Hara, as Reggie, gets to show off his circus-like athleticism (a trademark of Lookingglass). Using one crucial set piece, we see him simulating his watery dives suspended from the ceiling.
Stage design by Dan Ostling converts the theatre’s ever-changing space into a revival tent, complete with pews and trapdoors. It has a few tricks up its sleeve, and the Lookingglass emphasis on theatricality at times threatens to overpower the story (I won’t give away a real stunner of a trick, but you’ll know it when you see it). Sound design by Josh Horvath and Ray Nardelli plays an essential role, invoking the environment of a cavernous overturned behemoth and the echo of a voice crying for help. Bodies symbolized as empty wet outfits hanging from the ceiling create one of the most striking visuals you may see all season.
As a musical piece, some of the rhymes come off as a bit ungainly (sweet/treat, mother/each other), with the pentameter forced at points. The lyrics are supported by superior music by Sussman and Pluess, and this helps elevate some of the more pedestrian poetry of the lyrics. A song about the Chicago river’s history and the final number, “Only the River Remains,” stand out as exemplary compositions.
I could keep writing about this musical because even with its flaws it’s a pretty inspirational piece that has a lot happening and had a lot of care and craft going into it, and I’m happier to see a production take a risk and flail a little than be pretty good at being safe. For me, the Neo-Futurists’ productions of Roustabout! and Burning Bluebeard remain the gold standards for a strange subset of Chicago theater that focus on our surprising number of forgotten tragedies. A little of their brazen influence seemed to hover in this production.
What has been created here is a touching, ephemeral requiem for the hundreds of dreams that died that day. It moves beyond the story of the Eastland to become a larger tale about American dreams and equally American forgetfulness. The sad little plaque that is the only marker to commemorate the Eastland is slated to be replaced by a larger memorial of 12 panels, but perhaps this musical is a more fitting tribute. Memorials will rarely haunt you the way the ghosts of Eastland will.
Eastland continues through July 29th at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan (map), with performances Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $24-$68, and are available by phone (312-337-0665) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at LookingglassTheatre.org. (Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission)
Photos by Sean Williams
Jeanne T. Arrigo (Sister, Musician, others); Lawrence E. DiStasi (Otto, Olaf & others); Christine Mary Dunford (Marianne and others); Doug Hara (Reggie & others); Derek Hasenstab (Husband, Houdini, Musician & others); Erik Hellman (Grocer, Musician, others); Malcolm Ruhl (Musician & others); Michael Barrow Smith (Pedersen, Musician, others); Scott Stangland (Ernie, Musician & others); Tiffany Topol (Solveig, Musician, others); Claire Wellin (Bobbie & Musician); Monica West (Ilse, others)
behind the scenes
Amanda Dehnert (director); Dan Ostling (scenic design); Mara Blumenfield (costumes); Christine A. Binder (lighting); Amanda Dehnert (music arrangements); Malcolm Ruhl (music director); Josh Horvath (co-sound designer); Ray Nardelli (co-sound Designer); Sean Williams (photos)