at the Pegasus Players
By Dan Zeff
CHICAGO—From July 13 through July 20 in 1995, Chicago experienced a record-setting heat wave. During that week 739 people died in the city, more than twice as many as died in the Chicago fire of 1871. It became one of the worst, and most controversial, natural disasters in American history.
The loss of life during the heat wave attracted the attention of sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who wrote a study of that fatal July week called “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” Klinenberg’s book isn’t so much an examination of the heat wave as a probing of Chicago’s response, especially the failures of city government agencies and the media. After considerable research, the author concludes that the city government and the press were the chief malefactors in an ineffective response to the public health dangers of the heat wave, a response marked by denial, confusion, spin, incompetence, and implied racism.
The Pegasus Players, in collaboration with the Live Bait Theater, is staging Steve Simoncic’s stage adaptation of Klinenberg’s book as “Heat Wave.” Simoncic has crafted a docu-drama that investigates in a montage of short scenes what occurred during the 1995 heat wave and particularly, what went haywire with the city’s reaction.
Simoncic’s adaptation attempts to cover as many bases as possible in providing a panoramic view of what happened during the week of unprecedented heat in the city. While the play levels its heaviest criticism at the city administration of Mayor Daley and the journalistic cowardice of the press, other factors contributed to the enormity of the death toll. One factor had nothing to do with climate. Many of the dead were elderly, poor, and minorities, all groups without an effective voice in the community.
Two of the most effective scenes in the play take the audience inside the living hell that was the public housing projects during the 1990’s, where violence, despair, and hopelessness ruled. The elderly were afraid to leave their apartments in fear of rampaging gangbangers. They died alone, as did so many other fringe people—drug addicts, street people, and the infirm who had no family to check on their well-being.
So there were many factors that shaped the meteorological disaster, but the play still reserves most of its anger for the city government, portrayed as a mayor who refused to acknowledge the enormity of the disaster and a collection of underlings fearful of antagonizing the mayor and losing their jobs. In addition, the play cites lack of coordination among public service agencies and the absence of a government master plan to deal with such an emergency.
The play concentrates on three centers of action. One is Cook County hospital, overwhelmed by the influx of dead and unidentified bodies. The second is the inner sanctum of city hall, where officials scramble to put the best possible public relations face on a calamity of runaway proportions. Third is the reaction of the press, which, if the play is correct, trivialized the heat wave into a feature story, at the same time fearful of antagonizing a mayor who was always hypersensitive to any slight against his beloved Chicago.
“Heat Wave” utilizes an ensemble of 13 performers to take the audience through that frightful week. Some scenes are more dramatically effective than others, but cumulatively the play is a powerful indictment of the powers who failed to serve Chicago in its time of greatest need. The spectator will leave the theater appalled at the ineptness and cynicism of those who could have saved perhaps hundreds of lives, yet seemed more concerned with preserving their own careers or protecting their own occupational turf.
“Heat Wave” does allow a few voices to give their side of the story from city hall and Chicagoland press rooms, but overall the finger of blame points unwaveringly at the city power structure.
The mostly young cast is variable in its acting skills. I most liked Jon Stutzman as a suburban beat reporter who sees the magnitude of the story but can’t get the attention of his fearful editor to go ahead with the expose. Ali Carter contributes a high point of the evening as a young inner city black man erupting in rage and frustration over the plight of the ghetto dweller when he’s stopped by a white security guard from opening up a fire hydrant to give the neighborhood a bit of relief from the heat.
Earl Alphonso Fox delivers a heartbreaking monologue about how the elderly in the inner city live in fear of the violence around them. Fox’s character eloquently narrates a social horror story that has nothing to do with heat and everything to do with being poor and marginalized in modern urban life.
Ilesa Duncan keeps all the vignettes moving smoothly, with proper attention to the changing emotional tones of the various scenes. Richard and Jacqueline Penrod designed a functionally minimal set with rear stage sliding panels that allow props to move on and off stage expeditiously. Sean Mallory designed the dramatic lighting, Michelle Julazadeh the costumes, and Victoria Delorio the sound.
“Heat Wave” runs through April 6 at the Pegasus Players at the O’Rourke Center at Truman College, 1145 West Wilson Avenue. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $17 to $25. Call 773 878 9761.
For more information contact: www.pegasusplayers.org
The show gets a rating of 3 ½ stars. Fe.b 2008