A fact-based take on the deadly summer of ’95 becomes clumsy fiction.
The 1995 heat wave that killed hundreds of Chicagoans, most of them poor, deserves a study as careful as Eric Klinenberg’s award-winning 2002 dissection, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. It doesn’t deserve a treatment as cliché-ridden as Steven Simoncic’s fictionalized adaptation of Klinenberg’s nonfiction work.
Klinenberg’s book is a sociological examination of institutional responses to the heat wave and the confluence of social trends that led to heartbreaking numbers of people dying alone in their homes. Simoncic’s play, first seen at Pegasus Players in 2008 and newly revived by Cold Basement Dramatics as part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep, treats history like a disaster movie, giving his imagined characters—workers in the overwhelmed city morgue, Mayor Daley’s PR flacks, a pair of jaded Tribune reporters—elaborate backstories, melodramatic orations and awkwardly shoehorned statistics.
The play asks for emotional buy-in for the career aspirations of a fabricated press secretary or the checkered past of a fictional quirky morgue volunteer, while the actual deceased remain largely abstract. Cold Basement’s often clumsy, poorly paced staging doesn’t improve things, with elaborate furniture-moving scene changes turning into traffic jams and much of the large cast substituting emphasis for emotional clarity. Read the book.
Cold Basement Dramatics at Steppenwolf Garage. By Steven Simoncic. Directed by Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15 mins; one intermission.