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The Great Fire at Lookingglass Theatre Company | Theater review

John Musial’s playful, optimistic recounting of the Great Fire of 1871 doubles as love letter to the city that survived.

Photograph: Sean Williams
The Great Fire at Lookingglass Theatre Company, 2011

If not for the crucible that was the Great Fire of 1871, John Musial’s highly theatrical recounting reminds us, Chicago might not have become the powerhouse metropolis it did after rebuilding. Of course, this bit of silver lining comes late in the play, as its characters regroup after the worst is over. But it’s representative of Musial’s playful, optimistic approach to the telling, as much a love letter to Chicago today as a history of Chicago past.

First produced in 1999, Lookingglass ensemble member Musial’s work draws its protagonists from historical records and personal narratives in the possession of the Chicago History Museum. But the playwright turns them into collagelike, out-of-time figures, allowing fire marshal Robert A. Williams (Gary Wingert), for instance, to lecture us on later disasters such as the Iroquois Theatre and their bearing on the city’s current fire codes. The text has also been updated since the initial mounting to take serendipitous advantage of Lookingglass’s current home in the pre-fire Water Tower Water Works, as well as to address other aspects of modern Chicago life. (Thomas J. Cox’s apoplectic Mayor Roswell B. Mason is, shall we say, particularly Emanuelesque.)

Not everything blazes at the same rate. At no fault to the appealing actor Lindsey Noel Whiting, I’m not sold on the concept of a Tinkerbell-like avatar of Fire Itself. But Musial gives us a winning paean to a first Chicago that gave way but didn’t give up, reemerging “second only to itself.”

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