J.R. Sullivan directs 1001 Afternoons in Chicago

J.R. Sullivan directs 1001 Afternoons in Chicago

By Edith McCauley

By Edith McCauley

Theater Critic

1001 Afternoons in Chicago, adapted from the life and news columns of Ben Hecht and directed by J. R. Sullivan, opened last week at the Storefront Theater in Chicago. Originally staged in 1997, it received several Jeff nominations during the run. J. R. Sullivan also directed that production. His interest in Ben Hecht began early, resulting in a one-man show, Ben Hecht: Child of the Century. The result of years of research, it has become an integral part of J.R.’s life. Prop Thtr’s choice of a director could not be better.

Storefront Theater, a part of Gallery 37, evolved from Maggie Daly’s summer youth program for the youth of Chicago. The Gallery, a showplace for their work, displays every genre of art. The intimate 99-seat black box theater is the newest addition to Chicago’s Randolph Street and the perfect venue for original works and second stagings of off-Loop theater and dance companies. The colorful sets for 1001 designed by Eric Appleton were painted by the students of Gallery 37, many of whom were in the opening night audience.

Paul Peditto’s adaptation of the work of Ben Hecht set in 1921 takes the population of the city, its values and relationships, and brings to life a brief moment in history. David Bryson (Ben Hecht) retains much of the naivete of a young man from Racine. His friend, Sherwood Anderson (Michael Nowak), introduces him to the seamy side of the city, and two young ladies from Clark Street, Suzie (Jenni Fontana) and Camille O’Flage (Jessica Schulte). Flippant flappers looking for adventure on the streets, they cover uncertainty with slang of the times. Almost incomprehensible, Anderson translates, Peditto recaptures the essence of the ’20s.

Michael Quaintance’s portrayals of Bert Williams and Henry Spencer, a coal miner from southern Illinois awaiting execution for several deaths in a labor dispute, superbly illustrate the racism of the period. An actor of unsurpassed ability, he keeps us enthralled. Interviewed a few hours before hanging Carl Wanderer (Michael Mazzara) dismisses his crime with a casualness belying his fear. Hecht’s afternoon columns gave his readers an accurate picture of the “real Chicago.”

Ian Alderman, Steve Cardamone, Harry Eddleman, James Eldrenkamp, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Jonathan Lavan, John Fenner Mays, Brad David Reed, Whit Spurgeon and Anne Zarancek play newspaper associates, recent immigrants, society swells and madams. The speak-easy centers the action. Chris Walz lends absolute authenticity with his honky-tonk piano. Ben Hecht recalls the poignant past in the last scene, and Walz’s rendition of “Memories” emphasizes every word.

Prop Thtr’s Executive Producer Jonathan Lavan spoke at the end of the evening, acknowledging Sullivan’s fine direction, saying, “Most people call him J.R. We call him Lord Jim!”

Playing through Dec. 9, performances of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago runs Thursday through Sunday. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased by calling (312) 742-8497. A convenient parking garage is next door. J. R. returned to New York on Saturday. We look forward to his return to Rockford in January to direct Art at NAT.

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