Eastland: A New Musical at the Lookingglass Theatre

15 Jul

On July 24, 1915,  Western Electric employees and their families lined up along to Chicago River to embark on a four-hour cruise to Michigan City. Excitement was high as more than 7,000 people anticipated the fifth annual summer outing.  More than 2,500 revelers boarded The Eastland, one of four cruise ships chartered for the trip. Before they even left the dock. The Eastland capsized and more than 800 people died, trapped by the ship, crushed by shifting furniture, or drowned in twenty feet of water.

More people died in The Eastland accident than perished in the Great Fire of 1903. The ship was recovered and renamed, went on to serve in the military before being decommissioned and destroyed. Along with the lives lost that day are the names of the heroes. Nearly a century later, all that remains is a plaque by the Chicago River, memories passed down by survivors, and a handful of books about the disaster. I’ve lived in Chicago for most of the past 25 years, and I’ve probably walked by that plaque.  I know the city’s history fairly well. And, yet, I, like so many Chicagoans (especially transplants from elsewhere), had never heard of the Eastland disaster, the so-called “Chicago Titanic.”

Lookingglass Theatre’s production Eastland: A New Musical (written by Andrew White) should, by rights, change that.  Winner of the 2011 Best Regional Theatre Tony Award, the Lookinglass Theatre’s current season takes the theme “In Just One Moment, Everything Changed…,” and examines seminal moments in American history. That two of the moments are Chicago tragedies is fitting, given that the ensemble performs in a theater housed in the Water Tower pump building, one of two buildings that survived the Great Fire.

What sets Lookingglass Theatre aside in a city chock full of stupendous repertory and ensemble theater? Its productions come to life with a combination of brilliant acting, music, circus arts, and ingenious stage design. Nothing is as it seems and nothing is predictable.

So it is with Eastland: A New Musical. We know the ending before we walk in. But, we are greeted with a theater draped in silk sails, seated on pews, packed in tightly, and surrounding the stage on three sides. Actors serve double duty as musicians, playing turn-of-the-century instruments such as a banjo, accordion, piano, viola, and guitar. As the first actor strikes the first clear, strong, mournful note, you know you’re in for a treat. The voices are gorgeous and blend beautifully; the music clean and pure.

Eastland doesn’t simply tell the story of the tragedy. It weaves a dreamscape of interrupted lives, imagining the stories of several victims and one survivor (her grandchildren have provided valuable insight to the sources White consulted). White’s Eastland victims are immigrants who have suffered an Atlantic crossing; a young mother in a loveless marriage who has found new love and new hope for a fulfilling life; a young boy whose life is cut so short that he floats through the play as an image in his mother’s mind; working women who wind wire into cable for the newly invented telephone; an undertaker who is stunned by the scale of loss; and a ship’s captain who cannot fathom or shoulder the burden of this loss.

Jeanne T Arrigo, Monica West, and Tiffany Topol winding wire into cable in Eastland at the Lookingglass.

White evokes early 20th century Chicago, teeming with immigrants, grime, and desire. It’s the filthy city that we know from The Jungle, with prohibition and Al Capone, Harold Washington and the Daleys still long in its future. It’s a city where anything is possible, as demonstrated by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. We already love this city, its history, and phoenix that literally grew from its 1871 ashes. We grow to care about these characters–they are Chicagoans, and, thus, they are us. When, inevitably, they slip away from us, we are devastated.

The steamer Eastland being righted after capsi...

The steamer Eastland being righted after capsizing in the Chicago River near the Loop community. Chicago Daily News, Inc., photographer. CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 14 REPRODUCTION NUMBER DN-0064980 REPOSITORY Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street at North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614-6071. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of my favorite visual moments included Reggie Bowles (Doug Hara), the Human Frog, as he dove and swam to pull bodies from the water. “How could I stand by and watch those lives drift away?” he asks. He challenges himself each time he dives to beat Harry Houdini’s underwater record. Behind a scrim, suspended by wires, Bowles swims downward searching for people to help. He sings upside down and swimming. It’s truly breathtaking. Houdini appears to goad him and Bowles carries on a conversation with the Great Houdini as he salvages bodies. When he finally finds a survivor, though, he is all business.  A voice tells him that, like the Eastland, his name will fade quickly from memory, his heroism disappear for the historical record. The real Reggie (pronounced Reggae) was a 17-year old son of a Western Union wire chief who hopped on his bicycle as soon as he heard of the accident, hurried to the site, and volunteered to help. White immortalizes the extraordinary heroism of this ordinary boy, weaving his story into the imagined lives he creates.

What struck me most, aside from the extraordinary voices, the powerful acting, and the lovely verse, was the artistic direction. Using trap doors, scrims and pulleys, the play gives a visceral sense of the listing and leaning of the boat, the struggle of the victims, and the virtuoso rescue efforts of passersby. The first moments of the play don’t hint at the disaster to come–all is anticipation as it might have been that day. When the boat first leans and lists, we wonder along with the characters if it will be alright (even though we know it won’t). And when at the end, they wonder “if they’d missed a sign, a broken mirror or a lost watch,” we wonder with them. Empty, drenched clothing is hoisted on pegs as actors in similar costume are tagged, the dead, and sing their names and stories. These are ghosts, this is a ghost story, and the “extraordinary light” of these ordinary people will shine only in memory.

Andrew White’s words make this play memorable, creating not a memorial, documentary, or reenactment, but a haunting elegy. His words will ring in your ears when you walk out of the theater knowing that, indeed, “only the river remains.”

(My thoughts are not meant as a review. Plenty of seasoned critics have reviewed this lovely play. I’ve attached a few links to their pieces.)

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