Chicago Theatre Review
A Tribute to the Invisible
Heat Wave – Cold Basement Dramatics
In 1995 the Midwest endured one of the most severe bouts of intense heat ever experienced, since the record-breaking temperatures set in 1934 during the Great Depression. Fifteen years ago, thermometers in Chicago hit an unrelenting 100+ degrees for days on end. During that July more than 740 deaths, most of these helpless victims poor, elderly and minority inner city Chicagoans, were attributed to these five days of soaring record high temps. With the no relief in sight, air conditioning unaffordable to most and cooling centers unreachable by many, the city morgues filled to overflowing. With the Mayor off enjoying his vacation in Michigan, people were dying back in Chicago. The city’s emergency response team was challenged, but the public relations department for the Mayor’s Office horrifically shifted the blame back onto the victims.
Based upon sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s award-winning 2002 book, Heat Wave: a Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, this cinematic play by Steven Simoncic, presents the event as a series of scenes and monologues told by an assemblage of real and fictional characters. It paints a damning portrait of a city in peril. The statistics don’t lie but, in spite of high mortality figures, there’s always been an attempt to cover up the botched handling of this tragic period of Chicago history. Cold Basement Dramatics’ scintillating production not only recalls this dreadful tragedy, but it reminds audiences of the embarrassing way the city attempted to wash its hands of all guilt in dealing with the problem.
Dynamically directed by Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary, this production features a true ensemble cast of talented actors, most of whom play multiple roles. These fifteen versatile artists, performing in front of Paul Deziel’s exquisitely informative projection design, portray morgue attendants, police officers, officials from the Mayor’s Office, Chicago Tribune columnists, TV newscasters and various city residents and victims of the disaster. Every single actor plays each role with stark honesty and emotional commitment. Arch Harmon is terrific, both as Lester, the cranky supervisor of the city morgue and as a deceased elderly man who argues with his younger self, trying to figure out who’s to blame for his death. Eric Staves is wonderful, both as Ryan and especially as Ted, a compassionate Chicago cop simply trying to carry out his duty. Abby Pierce portrays Hopper, a young woman doing her community service in the city morgue, as a sassy, real individual with more heart and compassion than all her co-workers. Carmen Molina’s sympathetic Cass is the Mayor’s right-hand assistant who finds herself torn between her duty to job and family. And Deanna Reed-Foster stands out in every role she undertakes, but particularly as Pauline, an elderly black woman whose sadly truthful monologue brought the audience to tears.
This bold, gritty, scathing portrayal of one of Chicago’s darkest moments is a terrific, unflinching look at the victims and unsung heroes from that time. It’s produced with style and finesse by a director and her gifted, high-tech production team. Over a dozen supremely talented actors assume multiple roles in a play that could possibly be trimmed in length, but never fails to draw its audience into a real-life tragedy that most folks have forgotten. Once audiences experience this production, they’ll never forget again.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented as part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep series, March 7-April 25, by Cold Basement Dramatics at the Steppenwolf Garage, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.coldbasement.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.