TimeLine Theatre of Chicago is just one of more than 200 vibrant theatres that comprise the League of Chicago Theatres. Also, it’s the largest number of live theatre venues, in one city, anywhere in the country. It was one of five excellent productions made available to attendees of The American Theatre Critics Association who, this time, held their yearly conference in Chicago in June.
TimeLine Theatre’s mission statement, in part, is to present stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues. They employ collaborative artistic teams that produce provocative theatre and educational programs that engage, entertain, and enlighten. And they most certainly did exactly that with their groundbreaking and powerful world premiere production of “My Kind of Town”, written by Chicago native John Conroy.
Reporters are a dime a dozen. Good reporters are at a premium. But really good investigative reporter/journalists are a rarity. The qualities required of investigative types are: fearlessness and the nature of a terrier with a rag bone or toy. Once they get their teeth into a story, they don’t let go until the story or situation is resolved.
TimeLine’s first time playwright John Conroy comes to his stage debut honestly and with excellent “street creds”. He’s slugged it out in streets and in journalistic reportage of Chicagoland as an investigative reporter for over twenty years. He knows his material and his characters well. It’s his milieu, and he’s hit a home run with his first effort as a playwright.
The story of “My Kind of Town” is a far cry from the upbeat song title that Frank Sinatra warbled some thirty years ago. Frank’s rendition was a paean to the “City That Works”. Conroy’s play chronicles a far darker side not only of Chicago, but of all urban American cities – that of systemic police brutality. The play is inspired by the stories of numerous victims, police officers, prosecutors, and families whose lives have been tainted by allegations of torture by Chicago police, and the scandal it produced over a three decade period.
Conroy’s play wonderfully directed by artistic director Nick Bowling is a compelling and urgent piece of stagecraft from a “first-timer”. It’s a play that disturbs (not just Chicagoans) but is a drama that provokes, in large part, a wider audience. Torture (never seen onstage) is a repugnant, universal, and an equal opportunity offender/cancer with good guys and bad guys on both sides of the equation. The practitioners, however, are not always black and white monsters. They’re just people. They are people who bring shades of gray to the workplace and their lifestyles. The larger conundrum or issue is how to break the climate of violence and torture when it’s so pervasive, and so available as a way to resolve issues and behavior.
The story revolves around a riveting Charles Gardner, as Otha Jeffries, a gangbanging, drug-dealing minor thief who finds himself on death row after confessing to arson and a double homicide. It looks like an open and shut, slam-dunk case as far as the authorities are concerned. But we soon learn that things may not be as they appear, and there are other voices to be heard from, which might mitigate the obvious.
Without giving anything away, it’s fair to say that Conroy’s play and Bowling’s production lays out one of the bedrock issues that confront today’s society: the need to become involved in our communities, eventually doing the right thing despite the pressure from “just carrying out orders” as a way to keep one’s job or marriage intact.
There is no doubt about it – it’s a thorny issue that each and every one of us has to come to grips with on a daily basis.
Bowling’s outstanding cast includes: Ora Jones (a strong and staunch defender of her son, who “knows” he’s innocent), Trinity P. Murdock as the father, Derek Garza, as a very patient public defender and Gardner’s attorney, A.C. Smith as Officer George Dawson, Maggie Kettering as the conflicted prosecuting attorney, Danica Monroe as Ann Breen, Carolyn Hoerdemann as her sister Peg, and David Parkes, in a highly nuanced performance as the interrogating police officer, Dan Breen. There are so many finely judged “star quality” performances in this production it’s almost unfair to single out any particular turn. It’s a true ensemble effort by all.
Kudos to the creative team also: Scenic Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge for providing a realistic and functional set design that has the necessary grime and gritty look, allowing the actors the space they need to perform their magic. Nic Jones’ mood-inducing lighting design compliments Bembridge’s effort and lends verisimilitude to the costumes of Alex Wren Meadows. What impresses me the most is the fluid motion and pacing of director Nick Bowling’s unseen hand on Bembridge’s multi-level set. Everyone looks and knows where they’re going and what they’re going to do when they get there – and they look comfortable doing it.
Additionally, I can’t remember when I’ve mentioned the unheralded efforts of a dramaturg, but in the case of Maren Robinson, and this production, I secretly suspect it’s well deserved.
The TimeLine theatre of Chicago, now in its 15th year, is a theatre worth supporting. I may be based in Palm Springs, California, but I recognize excellent work when I see it. So, if you find yourself in Chicago this July; before the 29th, I highly recommend you catch a performance. For reservations and ticket information call 773-281-8463 or go online at www.timelinetheatre.com