CHICAGO—When we see the title of the new production My Kind of Town, we know it’s about Chicago—and it is—but don’t expect to hear the dulcet tones of crooner Frank Sinatra.
This stunning new play, written by John Conroy and sharply directed by Nick Bowling, takes us back to a period between 1980 and 1998 when we learned about the police torture scandal that continues to plague Chicago, even years later.
This story is about one particular man, Otha Jeffries (brilliantly played by Charles Gardner), and his fight for justice. But even before we meet this man and the story begins to unravel, we are welcomed by a TV screen with a photo journal of Chicago narrated by Rick Kogan (WGN Radio and Chicago Tribune feature writer)—so we know we will see pure Chicago.
Brian Sidney Bembridge has designed a set that fits many locations and never leaves us questioning where we are. The set serves as a police station, many different kitchens, an interrogation room, a conference room, and a court of law, as well as a prison cell and a fire escape.
Bowling’s direction has these set areas used by different people, sometimes in more than one location at the same time, as we go from scene to scene. For example, one table is used for two couples having separate conversations, which are clearly happening in different kitchens in the city. The smoothness of the transitions adds to the mystique of the production.
Otha is on death row for the murder of three people, a crime he claims he did not commit. He is sure that the system will beat him, and he will die.
He has been in jail for many years, and now attorney Robert Morales (deftly handled by Derek Garza) advises him so he can get a new trial, but first they must have a hearing. The hearing is set because rumors of police torture of prisoners have been exploding in the city.
What Conroy does is explore the events that took place at the time of Otha’s arrest and between the officers who made the arrest and questioned him. The officers are Dan Breen (a strong character played by David Parkes) and George Dawson (the always reliable A.C. Smith), who was more in the background and not involved in the grittier events at this South Side station house.
We learn through Otha’s retelling of the events of that night a great deal about not only these officers, but about the prosecutor (Maggie Kettering) and Otha’s parents, Rita (as always, a powerful performance by Ora Jones) and estranged father, Albert, a police officer himself (Trinity P. Murdock).
We learn of the night in question and watch how the events change the lives of all the parties concerned.
This is a strong drama that takes the scandals we have read and heard about on the news and makes them more real and more human. A young man has been tortured and awaits his death. His family has been emotionally destroyed.
As the story progresses, we also see the effects these scandals had on those who thought they were helping the people of Chicago, the misguided police officers under the direction of their leader, who tried to do what they felt would be best for the community—get the bad guys off the street.
The final scenes provide a shocking twist, which calls upon the audience to re-examine themselves and their consciences. The play asks whether torture ultimately saves anyone from being harmed. Did it do any good for anyone at all?
In fact, many lives were destroyed, disrupted, or changed because of the events on that particular night.
A finely tuned cast brings these characters to life. In addition to the abovementioned cast members, Danica Monroe as Ann Breen, wife of accused Officer Breen, and Carolyn Hoerdemann as her sister, show how even the lives of the families of the police are shattered.
With his great energy, Gardner is a standout in his portrayal of Otha, but the entire cast makes this production one that should be seen.Costumes by Alex Wren Meadows, Nic Jones’s lighting, original music (perfect in every way) and sound by Mikhail Fiksel, and the projections by Mike Tutaj alone, with the vast array of props handled by D. J. Reed are just the icing on a cake.
If you love history, if you love mystery, if you love cop stories, you will love this show.
615 Wellington Ave., Chicago, Ill.
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: 773-281-8463 or visit www.timelinetheatre.com
Closes: July 29
Alan Bresloff writes about theater in and around the Chicago area.
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