Down at Chicago Dramatists last Friday night, they couldn't conceal their delight over the weather. Unseasonable warmth had been followed hard by a winter storm that had just dumped several inches of snow and coated the sidewalks around Chicago and Milwaukee Avenues with treacherous ice. "We couldn't have asked for anything more," said managing director Brian Loevner in a preshow speech, licking his lips.
Loevner was excited because the week's Chicago weather had eerily mirrored the teasing trajectory of Jan. 1967, the topic of Jon Steinhagen's new play, "Blizzard '67." Mirrored to a point. That particular January was much more extreme — temperatures rose on Jan. 22 to 65 degrees. Yet at 5:01 am on Jan. 24, the Tribune reported, innocent snowflakes began to fall. They didn't stop falling until 23 inches of the white stuff had fallen, including 16 inches in a single, deadly day.
The impact of that change in the weather on four Chicagoans is the topic of "Blizzard '67," which follows four white-collar stiffs —Midwestern Mad Men without the money or the sex — whose daily carpool is both a chance for some male fellowship and a place to play out their bitter jealousies over who does and does not deserve a promotion and who has the best ride. In the early part of the play, the quartet heads off to work, unfulfilled male souls festering, but things take a dramatic turn when this little clutch of frenemies decide not to take up their employer's offer of a four-in-a-room night of the Tip Top Tap at the Allerton Hotel, but instead point that old Ford west and try to get home.
These men — played by Stephen Spencer, John Gawlik, Andy Hager and Andy Lutz — find a West Loop landscape turned deadly, which is not only a accurate picture of the blizzard of 1967, but a reminder of the blizzard of 2010. Chicago, of course, just keeps on giving.
If you are a sucker for local plays, or if you stare each morning at Tom Skilling's weather page, imagining the deeper stories therein, you'll find a lot to like in what, for the Chicago-based Steinhagen, is a significant step toward darker and more emotional themes for a writer long adept at quirky comedy. Aside from its close attention to West Loop topography — you can well imagine this little crew thinking Morgan Street was Randolph — the piece genuinely captures the depressive cycles that many of us hit during winter, when freezes kill our love for our city and thaws make us give it another chance, even as non-weather factors in our lives play out in front of this strangely influential backdrop.
From time to time, the unstinting Gawlik or Hager, both of whom come with an intensely focused malaise, will blurt out an insecurity or a need that seems just right, such as when the tired men ponder the unique pleasures of midwinter sleep, a taste of the profound logic of hibernation. Spencer, who plays the most successful and volatile of the clan, is charged with playing several other minor characters, following his man's unscheduled disappearance into the tundra of Racine Avenue. His complex but measured performances thereafter are the highlight of the night.
There are some lowlights. The main fault with this new play, at this juncture, is an irritating tendency for repetition. Time and again, it feels like the men are essentially re-stating the same thing, rather than moving the story forward or advancing their characters. Their collective ennui partly explains that, for sure, but it remains bothersome. And director Russ Tutterow's production, while generally well acted and always on solid human ground, is frequently much too slow, especially during lumbering, meandering transitions that make you feel like the dramatic snow is not falling anywhere as fast as it did that very real Chicago night.
If Steinhagen were to plow away some of the unnecessary peaks and valleys of the script — maybe ending up with a storming, 90-minute one-act — and everyone involved were to pick up the action and raise the stakes on the ground, "Blizzard '67" would be a Chicago play worth trotting out every January.
When: Through Feb. 12
Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 2 hours