The human sides of horror and resilience
|Cold Basement Dramatics presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Tensions run high in a city as a disaster of epic proportions unfolds. Race and class lines are drawn sharper than ever before. In the span of just a few days, the body count is so high that the morgue is overflowing (including bathrooms) and meat trucks are brought in to store the overflow. The mayor is conveniently out of town and despite their best efforts, public servants aren’t adequately serving their increasingly agitated public. This could be the plot a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, but it’s not: it was Chicago in July 1995, when a record-breaking heat wave resulted in all of the above. As we approach the 20th anniversary of this historical and horrific event, Cold Basement Dramatics presents Heat Wave, a darkly beautiful dramatization of the epic weather that almost took down our formidable metropolis.
The city of Chicago isn’t unaccustomed to extreme climate conditions, but the summer of 1995 throws everyone for a loop. In mid-July, an intense heat wave has residents dropping like flies – and most of the victims are poor, elderly, nonwhite, or all three. As the morgue struggles to keep up, the Mayor’s Office dodges calls from Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko and awaits their leader’s return from his Michigan vacation home. Two reporters on Chicago Tribune’s suburban beat are reduced to writing puff pieces after discovering just how high the death toll is, and the residents of the Cabrini-Green housing project on the North Side are alternately restless and helpless. Chicagoans from every walk of life are at a loss to deal with the staggering heat, an inadequate emergency response system and the devastating losses that result.
Heat Wave runs a bit long at times, especially in its first act. Steven Simoncic’s script (adapted from Eric Klinenberg’s book “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago”) occasionally relies on dialogue-heavy scenes that almost, but not quite, drag. (Also, there was one use of the word “hurricane” that should have been substituted with “tornado” – as a former resident of downstate Illinois, I can testify that we don’t have hurricanes there.) However, the action picks up in the show’s second act, as anger and tension increase with the body count. Director Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary keeps the pace quick and dirty, and does a brilliant job of mining each emotional beat without exploiting it. Particularly powerful scenes include: an exchange between a city cop (Eric Staves) and a frustrated Cabrini-Green resident (the always brilliant Preston Tate Jr.) – the former is struggling to maintain order and resources, and the latter just wants to open a fire hydrant so the community can have a brief respite; and the relationship between a bored young reporter (Richard Traub) and his older, family-man supervisor (Gary Simmers) as they struggle whether or not to publicize the heat wave’s horrible realities. The play’s unforgettable final sequence does the opposite of tying loose ends in a neat bow. Rather, the scene provides a devastating final image that will haunt audience members for days to come. And unlike a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, there’s no chiseled hero to bring the victims back to life.
Of this year’s three Garage Rep plays, Heat Wave boasts the strongest script, acting and use of space. Julia Carusillo’s set is deceptively simple, heavily relying on a more than capable ensemble. Jeffrey Levin’s composition and sound design uses music from the period and an eerie original score, both of which are extremely effective in underlying the drama. And Paul Deziel’s projection design is nothing short of supreme – video clips featuring cast members, shattering imagery and most disturbing, death statistics that only increase as the play progresses. While the entire cast is strong, bright spots include Tate, Traub, Abby Pierce as a rough-around-the-edges morgue volunteer and Carmen Molina as Cass, who’s worked her way up to head publicist for the Mayor’s Office but can’t shake her loyalty to her Woodlawn roots and her concern for family and friends suffering there.
I’m proud to call Chicago my home, but I realize that the city isn’t without its issues, and that I’ve been incredibly privileged to have the experiences I’ve had. With this in mind, Heat Wave should be required viewing for every Chicagoan. Cold Basement Dramatics’ exceptional production highlights the scarier side of our city’s history – and the resilience of those who survived.
Heat Wave continues through April 25th at Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted (map), as part of the Steppenwolf Garage Rep Series. Tickets are $20 (students $15) and $45 for all three plays, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through Steppenwolf.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ColdBasement.org. (Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Courier
Mykele Callicut (Young Man, ensemble), Mike Cherry (Manny, ensemble), Claudia DiBiccari (Gabriella, Denise, ensemble), Emily Grayson (Liz), Arch Harmon (Lester, Old Man, ensemble), Zach Livingston (Sandy, ensemble), James McGuire (Dale, ensemble), Carmen Molina (Cass, ensemble), Abby Pierce (Hopper, ensemble), Paula Ramirez (Bonnie, ensemble), Deanna Reed-Foster (Pauline, Wendy), Gary Simmers (Bigby, ensemble), Eric Staves (Ryan, Ted, ensemble), Preston Tate Jr. (Vanish, ensemble), Richard Traub (Stu, ensemble), Michael Bartz, Mykele Callicut, Emily Grayson, Laquin Groves, James McGuire, Erica Pezza, Paula Ramirez, Deanna Reed-Foster (understudies)
behind the scenes
Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary (director), Julia Carusillo (scenic and properties design), Elsa Hiltner (costume design), Rebecca A. Barrett (lighting design), Jeffrey Levin (composition and sound design), Paul Deziel (projection design), Claudia DiBiccari (choreographer), Jen Poulin (dramaturg), Casey Cunningham (casting director), Liz Siedt (graphic designer), Matthew Carney (technical director), Brian Kilborn (film director), Bex Marsh, Hannah Sawicki (assistant directors), Sarah Pickett (production manager), Kathleen Dickinson (stage manager), Kristen Ahern (costume assistant), Zach Stinnett (properties assistant), Cassandra Schiano (assistant dramaturg), Edward Torres (artistic consultant), Devon Marti (photographer), Michael Courier (photos)