review: my kind of town

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My Kind of Town

by John Conroy
Directed by Nick Bowling
Featuring Ora Jones, AC Smith, Charles Gardner, Danica Monroe
Timeline Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington, Chicago
May 11, 2012 — July 29, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 14, 2012

[This is another one of the five shows I saw in Chicago during the June 2012 summer meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.]

(L-R) Derek Garza, Charles Gardner, Trinity P. Murdock. Image by Lara Goetsch.

Chicago is famed for the perception of corruption in voting (“vote early and often”), and city employee jobs filled with friends and family of those in power. Gangsters and payoffs and getting along to get things done are the stuff of historical fact and theatrical fictions — the perceptions rule and we all smile recalling Capone and Mayoral scandals and newsroom cavorting known as The Front Page.  And then we come to the police torture scandal the led to confessions and a raft of arrests that were exposed by the journalist John Conroy who has now crafted a first play, a marvelous theatrical fiction informed judiciously, dramatically, sparely, and potently from those investigations and trials through which he lived and out of which he generated first-rate reportage.  Art crafted from painful recent historical fact. The end result is marvelous theatre.

The drama brings together questions of race and class, of law breakers and law enforcers, of families broken apart and struggling, and torture.  Video sequences (designed by the marvelous Mike Tutaj) provide historical context assembled from 20-year-old news reports and sports events. The characters in the play are composites or suggested by the individual African-American men who were tortured and convicted (some wrongly, some with problematic procedures), police men and women, and family members of police and prisoners.  An African-American officer who observes and is later troubled by the interrogation techniques in “Area 2” police station is George Dawson (A.C. Smith), who placates a young white female state attorney Maureen Buckley (Maggie Kettering) who waits and hears and ignores another intense interrogation taking place in the bowels of the station house, while she awaits her confession documents.  The prisoner who is providing that awaited “confession”, young Otha Jeffries (Charles Gardner), may or may not have been involved in events he later describes in fragments, spit out in anger after his lawyers, his family, and the system refuse to listen to his tales of the interrogation torture he endured before his conviction, while he lives years behind bars. And we watch two family constellations deal with the legacies of these events.  One family features police man torturer Dan Breen (David Parkes) who does what he learned to do in the military service to get the interrogation results he is after and his wife Ann Breen (Danica Monroe) who supports and looks the other way for years until the final courtroom images when she can’t take her eyes off the case before her.  Another family features the tortured prisoner Otha Jeffries, his mother Rita (Ora Jones at my performance) and ex-cop father Albert (Trinity P. Murdock).  The courtroom events are interspersed tautly, creatively, powerfully with the personal events of this play. While dramatically we are left in the play without a final clear resolution of right and wrong, we know and feel that the criminal justice system is finally heeding the crimes of these procedural violations.

Powerful theatre packed into a small space, slightly thrust. Set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge provides layers and rooftops and kitchens around corners and a sense that the past is the present and surrounds the people in this story.

Timeline Theatre Company, my press pack materials remind me, has morphed from a company formed by a half-dozen theatre school pals in 1996 through  non-Equity and Equity status contracts and Jeff Award categories to national attention for the quality of its productions (and local appreciation from this gal who lived in Chicago as a dramaturg, Jeff Committee member, and critic from 2005-2009).  Timeline’s focus on history and respect for dramaturgical framing are stellar — see the materials around the lobby and on-line to educate yourself before and after the experience of this show — the content and the layout of all the materials illustrative of how great dramaturgy can be (bravo dramaturg Maren Robinson).  All this history comes to bear for us as visitors, for this particular show and the history it presents, the Chicago journalist turned playwright (perhaps just for this one story, perhaps for further explorations), and for the stellar ensemble assembled.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 29, 2012)

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