PostHeaderIcon A Living Hell in the Basement

It’s hard to believe but the League of Chicago Theaters boasts more than 225 member companies. They run the gamut from pop-up venues and modest storefronts to more established mid-size companies all the way to name-brand ensembles such as Goodman, Northlight, Court, Steppenwolf and Shakespeare Repertory. This happy state of affairs, nurtured over the past 25 years, has made Chicago America’s most vibrant theater town, though New York and Broadway remain the industry’s capital.

Amid such a theatrical jumble, it’s difficult to stand out and create a distinct identity. A troupe that has carved out a unique niche is timelineTimeLine Theatre Company. I recommend that you put it on your must-go list for consistently engaging evenings at the theater. The company, now celebrating its 15th Anniversary, made Chicago Magazine‘s 2011 list of “Best Theatre in Chicago” and was named one of the nation’s top 10 emerging professional theatres by the American Theatre Wing which administers the Tony Awards.

TimeLine’s mission is “to present stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues.”  Over its 15-year history, it has presented 51 productions, including 16 Chicago premieres. TimeLine has received 46 Jeff Awards (Chicago’s Tonys), including an award for Outstanding Production eight times.  A few acclaimed productions in recent years have included The History Boys“, “Frost/Nixon“, “The Farnsworth Invention” and “The Front Page”.

Given such an illustrious history, you’d think the company would be more-widely-known. It already is within Chicago’s theater community and among committed theatergoers.  Yet I often encounter blank stares when I mention their name to friends and have to deliver an elevator pitch endorsement. Perhaps the lack of a large marketing budget for banner ads in the Chicago dailies and a house seating only 99 viewers a night might explains why TimeLine has had to build its reputation show by show, season after season. It even took me more than 10 years to discover them.

John Conroy

John Conroy

TimeLine’s newest production, its eighth world premiere, is “My Kind of Town” by veteran investigative journalist, John Conroy. Conroy has turned his long-running expose about a Chicago police torture scandal into riveting and disturbing drama. It asks its audience to have what TimeLine calls “a new conversation about today’s culture of law and order.”

Entering the theater, we see a stage with only a table, some chairs and a typewriter off to the side. The set consists of black, interlocking pipes, resembling construction scaffolding. Within the play’s first moments, you realize it is the basement interrogation room at Chicago Police Area 2 station house. Beginning in 1973 and over the next dozen years, Commander John Burge and other detectives tortured suspects employing suffocation and electric shock (shades of Abu Ghraib) to gain coerced confessions to crimes the suspects were alleged, often mistakenly, to have committed.

Beginning in January, 1990, Conroy published “House of Screams”, the first of 22 articles in The Chicago Reader, drawing attention to the torture allegations . For many years, the charges of police brutality against Burge were dismissed by authorities, the media and an indifferent public. Finally, in January, 2003, as the evidence became too great to ignore, Governor George Ryan pardoned four men tortured at Area 2, all of whom were sitting on Death Row. The next day, Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death penalty prisoners. Chicago, to date, has paid more than $37 million in civil suits to settle lawsuits by victims against Burge and detectives under his command. Burge was recently sentenced to serve 4 1/2 years in prison. (A PDF Study Guide about the scandal’s history and legislation is on the TimeLine website, www.timelinetheatre.com).

This is all disturbing and highly volatile history, the kind we prefer to turn away from. Yet, theater can be a teacher. Ever since the Greeks, it has examined issues of morality and, at its best, supplied healing catharsis. Conroy and TimeLine handle this material by focusing on the humanity and incredible pain that the suspect, detectives and family members endure. Burge doesn’t appear at all. Instead, we come to know and care about the defiant suspect, the supportive detective’s wife who begins to have her doubts, the anguished mother of the suspect who never gives up fighting for her son and the State’s Attorney whose report can gain a new trial.

Derek Gaza as Otha Jeffries

Charles Gardner (center) as Otha Jeffries

The result is gripping theater due to superb acting by every ensemble member, particularly Charles Gardner as suspect Otha Jeffries (the characters’ names are composites of several accounts) and David Parkes as Detective Dan Breen. Director Nick Bowling keeps the narrative tension taut and builds the action expertly to a fever pitch in the second half. He uses the stage’s table prop imaginatively. In one scene, it is the interrogation table; later it becomes  a family dining table. I especially admired his staging in the second act when the suspect’s parents and the detective and his wife sit around the table each planning their courtroom strategy. Though the finale left me slightly deflated, Conroy rejects a pat ending in favor of having the audience exit with the issues of corruption and our complicity in its continuance swirling around our brain.

David Parkes & Maggie Kettering

David Parkes (Det. Breen) and Danica Monroe as his wife.

“My Kind of Town” plays through July 29 with performances Wednesdays thru Sundays. A post-show discussion follows every performance. In addition, TimeLine will host several programs dealing with the play’s themes and issues. On Sunday, June 10, a free one hour post-show panel discussion at the theater will feature Rob Warden of Northwestern’s Center for Wrongful Convictions, accompanied by some of the men who were wrongfully convicted due to torture. On Monday, June 25, playwright Conroy sits for a conversation with Tribune reporter and WGN radio personality, Rick Kogan, at the Chicago Cultural Center. Admission to both events is free but reservations are recommended. To register for these events or to order tickets for the show, call the TimeLine box office at 773/281-8463 or email www.timelinetheatre.com.

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