If you don’t already know about the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, now’s a great time to check it out. For ten years, the Equity company run by Ann Filmer in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center has endeavored to produce high-quality work for an affordable price while paying artists fairly, and for this anniversary season, they’re reviving several of their hits as staged readings (I can personally recommend Yasmina’s Necklace). As for the current mainstage production, Blizzard ’67 by local playwright Jon Steinhagen is an expertly crafted character study in a setting familiar to every Chicagoan of a certain age, but is easily accessible to those whom the blizzard long predates.
The play begins a few days before the January 26th blizzard with the characters breaking the fourth wall to introduce themselves to us in a narrative device, which Steinhagen will return to a few times over the evening. In this early segment, the audience chuckles knowingly along with the four men in a carpool as they marvel over how quickly Illinois weather can go from 65 degrees to dropping two feet of snow. That humor is a necessity for keeping the audience’s interest, too, because calling our characters creatures of their era is about the nicest thing which can be said about them.
Four steel chairs represent the car Lanfield (Mark Pracht) drives his co-workers in. They alternate four times a year, and Lanfield’s functional alcoholism and his car’s faulty radio and horn gain him no reprieve from his duties. Riding with him are Henkin (Stephen Spencer), a bachelor rising in the company, family man Bell (Noah Simon), and young new guy Emery (Christian Stokes). They are not friends. Emery claims he can see that Henkin’s recent promotion is simply a meaningless carrot the bosses wave in front of them, but Lanfield is seething with jealous insecurity and stokes Bell’s low-key dissatisfaction, as well. Henkin is unapologetic about doing “well” and Emery internally debates whether siding with him or Lanfield would be more advantageous.
Besides making up for in paper-thin egos what they lack in social skills and self-awareness, our characters have very little in their lives which gives them any happiness, and our look into their home lives earns them a bit of pity. Bell is luckier than the others in that he at least as a child he loves and is loved by. Emery has a doting father who has provided him with everything and a new wife; even if his life is disappointing now, there’s reason to expect it will get better. Lanfield is an emotional mess but has a wife who nurses him while enabling his self-destruction. Henkin’s loneliness is a more subtle kind of sadness, and one more easily hidden under affected disdain. When the men are caught in the sudden blizzard as a result of preferring the risk of commuting home to the certain misery of sharing a room, they are thrown into crises. In a moment of panic, three abandon the fourth, and are left to confront their mounting horror and disgust at how far they are from how they perceived themselves.
Sometime after Blizzard ’67, Steinhagen wrote The Devil’s Day Off, which was performed by Signal Ensemble in 2014 and depicted the consequences of a heat wave in Chicago. Whether Blizzard ‘67’s script was revised after that I do not know, but Steinhagen has developed a formidable skill at writing characters in extreme, but easily recognizable, situations. However, while The Devil’s Day Off was written to give the actors and director as much latitude as possible, Blizzard ’67 thrives on its specificity. Filmer guides her four actors seamlessly from the satirical tone at the play’s opening to the harrowing meditations at its end. Her direction and Steinhagen’s script draw us into the characters’ lack of closure, making us suffer prolonged tension along with them in the play’s second act. Assisting in this is the minimal design, with a brutal grey set by Grant Sabin, cold lights by Benjamin White, projections with the slightest dream-like edge by Anthony Churchill, evocative weather sound-effects by Barry Bennett, and period and character-appropriate costumes by Rachel Sypniewski.
Even so, the four actors are, of course, the pillars on whom the play rests, and each provides a full portrait of a man mired in his own different kind of frustration. While Bell may be the most conventionally likeable, each has petty weaknesses and aspirations we can easily identify with. Spencer, in particular, does stand-out work, as he not only plays Henkin, but also has to transform himself into several other characters who are treated seriously by the narrative. Wisely, he and Filmer have not attempted to be completely illusionary with this, but give us a good enough idea of a bartender and a close relative of each of the other characters for us to understand how they relate to each other. For the most part, the relationships are very troubled, and what makes Blizzard ’67 interesting on a level deeper than mere nostalgia for the blizzard is its examination of a failure of people to value each other. It takes a televised speech by Richard J. Daley, of all people, for the characters to realize what the true source of their unhappiness is. Those of us today with more satisfactory work environments, families, and friendships may come away grateful for how far things have come, and remember to safeguard mundane kindnesses and our consciousness of others.
Blizzard ’67 is being performed at 6420 16th St in Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours, with one intermission. Tickets may be purchased at 16thstreettheater.org. Admission is $18-22.
Performances are Thursdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm (often with a post-show discussion) and Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00 pm now extended through March 4th. Parking is available for free in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.