'My Kind of Town' picks at still-raw wound

THEATER REVIEW: "My Kind of Town" ★★★½

"My Kind of Town" at TimeLine Theatre.

"My Kind of Town" at TimeLine Theatre. (May 13, 2012)

"My Kind of Town," the fine new play by John Conroy with the titular nod to Frank Sinatra, begins with a faux promotional video about the beauties of Chicago, circa 1990. Narrated by the Tribune's Rick Kogan, it's a shot-from-the-air celebration of the city's natural beauties, glamorous night life and friendly, unpretentious people. From there, we are led directly down, down into the basement of Area 2 police headquarters, where confessions are extracted with the help of an electronic device that was manufactured right here in Chicago, the city that works, and that could be attached to the genitals of suspects, all the better to make them sing about what they may have done.

This world-premiere drama at TimeLine Theatre is unlikely to be on any officially sanctioned tour by the NATO delegates who arrive in Chicago this week, and if foreign journalists find their way to the stage inside the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, their resultant stories likely will not be the ones city boosters want told. But in Chicago, the theater is where Chicagoans go to hear about their city and debate, maybe even save, its soul. And Conroy, whose years of reportage for the Chicago Reader reached a pinnacle with a 19,000-word 1990 story on allegations of police torture, allegations that resulted in what many in the community felt were disproportionately modest legal action and reforms, is laying out the great Chicago paradox on a slab as surely as did Nelson Algren when he compared the city to a lovely woman with a broken nose. In Conroy's telling, though, the beautiful nose was broken deliberately.

With "My Kind of Town," a long-in-the-works drama that gripped its audience on Saturday night, Conroy clearly wants to indict the city he just as clearly loves because it buried its head in the lakefront sand as activities more associated with terrorists or repressive governments transpired. You don't get the sense that Conroy particularly wants to further pillory police Cmdr. Jon Burge or the real-life protagonists of this sordid scandal — none of whom is named in this play — rather, he wants to grab Chicagoans by the scruff of the neck.

The play feels like a cri de coeur that the city's longtime love of the nod and the wink in the direction of our culture of corruption — allowable, in many minds, just as a long as the streets are plowed, the gunshots remain a few blocks away and the flowers bloom — is morally untenable for a great metropolis. It's a short lakefront jog, Conroy points out here in truly arresting fashion, between taking care of one's extended family and aiding and abetting an outrage.

Early in the play, an African-American police officer named George Dawson (perhaps his character name is a nod to Ald. William L. Dawson, famous for doing the Machine's bidding on the South Side) lays out what is going on for a visitor from the state's attorney office, played with delicious elusiveness by Maggie Kettering. "This is Area 2," the officer says (he's played, in Nick Bowling's superbly acted production, by the great A.C. Smith). "When the midnight crew says there is a confession coming, you can take that to the bank."

Despite the moral force of this play, and the explosiveness of its content, the tone of "My Kind of Town" is strikingly careful and balanced. We do not see any of the torturing. The tale is told mostly in small scenes of people not quite managing to do the right thing.

Part of the story here, of course, is that it took a long time for anyone else to listen to what Conroy was writing about in an alternative newspaper. Despite the precision and detail of the reporting, the story was viewed as too local for a national airing, and, it was widely thought at the time, too laden with a particular anti-police agenda. Those accused — either in the building or many paygrades higher — mostly stonewalled Conroy and the Reader with silence, which proved an effective defense given the lack of other media outlets jumping on the story. Being largely ignored 22 years ago, it feels here, gave Conroy's writing greater humility and moral force. This is not the work of a journalist who found out some nasty things and brought down a government. This is the work of a journalist who found out some things and mostly was ignored.

Events here center on a young gangbanger and petty criminal named Otha Jeffries (played, in what should be a career-making performance, with blistering emotional intensity by Charles Gardner) who finds himself in Area 2 headquarters when the midnight crew wants answers — especially a police officer named Dan Breen (David Parkes), an otherwise nice guy who has been sucked into some kind of crippling vortex when he gets to work. Especially if you have read Conroy's articles, you will see shades of the real-life arrestees who claimed torture, such as Andrew Wilson or Aaron Patterson. But Gardner's character is a composite, as is Parkes' genial Breen, seen alongside his wife Ann (Danica Monroe) and her sister Peg (Carolyn Hoerdemann), the latter a complex character who heads off to California but keeps the Chicago Way in her heart. The play's point is that particular personalities are less to blame than the system.

Any time you stick a play in a police station, you risk the familiar landscape of a TV-type procedural. Inevitably, some of these themes feel previously worn, especially by Keith Huff's play "A Steady Rain." The idea of loyalty trumping all, and defining silence, is not a new one. And there are times when both the play and production could use a more overtly theatrical feel, far away from the genre.

Still, the muted tone of the piece is wholly compelling, and Bowling's driving direction never messes around. Conroy is careful to point out many of the accusers of the police had themselves done bad things. Torture, he implies, was not necessarily inflicted on the otherwise innocent: Only Jeffries' mother, played by Ora Jones with deep intensity, always has stood by her boy. But the day a city thinks that torturing the maybe guilty offers indemnity is a day a city finds itself lost.

The actors, especially Monroe and Kettering, bring a remarkably quotidian tone to their gray, harried, worried characters. You easily can imagine these very ordinary Chicagoans just trying to get along — as most of us do, be we private citizens, city officials or big media outlets — without rocking the boat or being rocked by one and spilling out into the big lake. They're at once detestable and wholly understandable.

The play finishes very suddenly and ambivalently — too suddenly, to my mind — but it is clearly Conroy's way of saying the full story has not yet been heard or acted upon. There were shocks, but as yet no end.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@chrisjonestrib

When: Through July 29

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Tickets: $32-$42 at 773-281-8463 and timelinetheatre.com 

CHICAGO

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