Chicago Theater Review: HEAT WAVE (Cold Basement Dramatics at Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 8, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

THE OTHER CHICAGO FIRE

No question, this 20-year-old tragedy is not as sexy a Chicago calamity as either the historic three-day blaze of 1871 or this year’s centennial of the foundering of the Eastland steamer. A natural event with unnatural results, the heat wave of 1995 is more like the 1979 blizzard that defeated Mayor Bilandic or the underground flood that ravaged the Loop in 1992–slow-motion disasters exacerbated by human incompetence, neglect, and stupidity before a growing menace. That doesn’t make it less vital to learn from or revisit.

Eric Staves, Deanna Reed-Foster, Claudia DiBiccari, Carmen Molina and Zach Livingston in Cold Basement Dramatics’ production of HEAT WAVE. Photo by Anna Sodziak.

Five killer days and nights of rising temperatures and mounting body counts are compellingly reprised in Cold Basement Dramatics’ taut and telling Heat Wave. It’s a cinematic, flawlessly executed, and very freely felt adaptation by Steven Simoncic of Eric Klinenberg’s non-fiction thriller, subtitled “a social autopsy of disaster in Chicago.” Fittingly, the pell-mell, two-act docudrama, kinetically performed by an all-action cast of 15, begins in the Cook County morgue. There, beginning July 15, the sudden, steady arrival of heat-related corpses from all over the city defied probability, and signaled much more than a change in the weather.

Carmen Molina, Zach Livingston and Emily Grayson in Cold Basement Dramatics’ production of HEAT WAVE. Photo by Anna Sodziak.

With heat indexes soaring above 119 degrees and lethal humidity, this “heat inversion” revealed all the fault lines–in age, race, and class–in an ever divided city: Never rescued by wellness checks, 939 souls perished before their time, forgotten and abandoned behind windows without burglar bars that the elderly were too afraid or stubborn to open (the all-important “cooling centers” were never located where most needed).

Carmen Molina, Claudia DiBiccari, Mykele Callicut, Paula Ramirez, Preston Tate Jr., Deanna Reed-Foster and James McGuire in Cold Basement Dramatics’ production of HEAT WAVE. Photo by Anna Sodziak.

Spinning the plates of cascading crises (Com Ed’s power failures were inexcusable), Simoncic’s often emotional confrontations deliver a mounting panic and the inevitable blame-throwing. Business as usual surrendered to improvised coping. With Mayor Daley II briefly away at his Michigan getaway, City Hall’s flunkies (played by a harried Zach Livingston and Carmen Molina) go into denial, then damage control. Arch Harmon’s beleaguered doctor and Abby Pierce’s goofy volunteer deal with an onslaught of D.O.A.s requiring refrigeration and ultimately a paupers’ graves. Delivery trucks were packed with 46 decomposing bodies, 60 minus the meat. Hospital emergency rooms declare dangerous “bypasses” that condemn heat stroke victims to unavoidable demise. The National Weather Service and Center for Disease Control are forced to intervene in a no-win catastrophe.

Abby Pierce in Cold Basement Dramatics’ production of HEAT WAVE. Photo by Anna Sodziak.

Paul Deziel’s projections provide a graphic backdrop for this cross-section of Chicago cluelessness. James McGuire, Deanna Reed-Foster, and Paula Ramirez are the newscasters who slowly wake up to the enormity of the silent slaughter (standing in a kiddie pool or commenting on make-up meltdowns suddenly seem silly ways to convey matters of life and death).

Arch Harmon, Abby Pierce and Mykele Callicut in Cold Basement Dramatics’ production of HEAT WAVE. Photo by Anna Sodziak.

Corpses rise from morgue slabs to share what they loved about life before it all went dark. A stunning clash between Preston Tate Jr.’s projects punk and Eric Staves’ fed-up cop over turning on a hydrant is about a lot more than choosing between short-term relief and long-term vulnerability–the neighborhood riots expose a split city’s failure to communicate or care. Chicago Tribune beat reporters find themselves used by a mayor’s office that’s all about deniability: How do you alert Chicagoans to an emergency that no city official wants to declare?

James McGuire, Deanna Reed-Foster and Paula Ramirez in Cold Basement Dramatics’ production of HEAT WAVE. Photo by Anna Sodziak.

Cold Basement’ s hot hit is a worthy contributor to Steppenwolf Theatre’s annual spring fling–2015’s three- play Garage Rep round-up. (See reviews of Red Tape Theatre’s The March Across America for Mother Earth and Pride Films and Plays’ Angry Fags.) Heat Wave is skillfully and seamlessly constructed and enacted, a wake-up call for more than just global warming and urban indifference. The cumulatively overpowering staging by Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary is a tour d’ensemble to watch in wonder and warmly recall. Oh–and there’s free lemonade in the fact-filled lobby (where you can post your own memories of scorching suffering and survival). See it before the climate again gets too close for comfort.

photos by Anna Sodziak

Heat Wave
Cold Basement Dramatics
part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Garage Rep 2015
Garage Theatre, 1624 N Halsted St
ends on April 25, 2015
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org

for info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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