The loss of some 1,500 souls when the RMS Titanic sank in 1912 has been memorialized, if that's the right word, with a century of narrative re-creation, a hit movie, countless documentaries, a Broadway musical, a Celine Dion ballad, a permanent tourist replica in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and peripatetic exhibits of artifacts. The loss of more than 800 souls — mostly employees of the Western Electric Company of Hawthorne (now Cicero) headed off for a cruise and a picnic — when the overloaded SS Eastland tipped into the Chicago River just three years later is barely known and rarely discussed. There's just a small plaque by the Chicago River. On occasion, you can see the odd surprised tourist squinting at the story and then looking over in disbelief at the narrow, serene, city-center waterway, wondering how it could have possibly happened with land just a few feet away on either side.
In its best moments, "Eastland," the theatrically muddy but emotionally powerful new musical from the Lookingglass Theatre Company, focuses in on some of the reasons. As one of the wrenching songs by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman notes, there were no rich or famous people on board the Eastland, just working-class folks, many making and laying cable. There was no assaulting iceberg to stir imaginations, just a fatal tip into the water. And whereas the bejeweled Titanic stirred the hearts and romanticizing printing presses of the Anglo-American media complex, the prosaic "Eastland" merely toppled into a filthy Chicago River, collateral human damage in a rough-and-tumble and chaotically expanding city.
One death, then, is not valued like another, which is not news to most of us, but still a truth and a theme that bares constant theatrical repeating, especially since on the Eastland, as the above song goes on to note, "stories and secrets were lost just the same." When Andrew White's book and Amanda Dehnert's staging keep the focus on the victims, honoring their lives and seeking to understand what caused their deaths, the show packs enough that it is well worth seeing. White clearly wants to celebrate ordinary lives even as death plays out in muddy, shallow waters. Another haunting song in this show tells of all the Big City horrors — from the carcasses of beasts to the detritus of prostitutes — the Chicago River has swallowed in its time.
In the case of the Eastland disaster, it also swallowed people. I won't quickly forget the moment when one dying character — the dying in this show can look back on their fates — wonders what will happen to the survivors of her family and arrives at the inevitable conclusion that they will just have to learn to look after themselves, as so many Chicagoans have had to learn, for so many reasons.
Pluess and Sussman are richly talented songwriters (I've admired their work since the remarkable "Winesburg, Ohio" nearly a decade ago) whose rootsy melodies understand the musical language of the ordinary Midwesterner. Many of the songs in "Eastland" (performed by a cast doubling as the band; the hard-shelled folk icon Michael Smith plays both guitar and the stiff captain of the ship) are powerful indeed. The singing, from cast members like Monica West, Jeanne T. Arrigo, Tiffany Topol, Derek Hasenstab and Doug Hara under the musical direction of Malcolm Ruhl, is much stronger than in past Lookingglass musicals. The score here looks at this story from all angles; every time another number starts you find yourself leaning into the show and its characters.
Dramaturgically speaking, though, the piece starts out as a bit of a mess. And Dehnert's staging can and does get too showy for its own good, sometimes sacrificing clarity of storytelling for a self-aware theatricality, which is the less important of the two. The structure of the piece is complex — we move back and forward in time, the pre-disaster lives of the characters alternating with scenes dealing with a diver, Reggie (Hara), who pulled the bodies out of the river.
The jumpy, confusing first 20 minutes of the show don't make the audience feel secure in time, place or character. The show misses the chance to reveal to us the moments of normalcy before the horror unfolds, which we need to feel for the show to exert its full power. And it's only when we meet a married woman (played by the excellent West) beginning a gentle affair with a grocery clerk (the charming Erik Hellman) that it feels the show has latched onto actual characters. We end up knowing too few of the victims; we would know them better if the show would get its own pretentious structure out of the way and let them speak and sing through this terrific score.
"Eastland" needs to decide if it's to be a montage or a full-blown book musical with a unified arc. The latter surely is the way to go (it is what the victims deserve), and while that does not mean a fluid structure can't remain, it does mean the staging should track more clearly, allowing deeper themes to resonate as strongly as they do in the score. We could also live without Harry Houdini (Hasenstab), who shows up here as a kind of ghostly mentor for the underwater diver, who likes to hold his breath. Not only does this feel like borrowing from "Ragtime," but the cliched and here-irrelevant escapologist takes away time from the people we really want to know and understand.
At one point West's character loses hold of her child on the boat as she spies her lover. This feels like a cheap moment — as if she is being punished for the affair — but the human connection between West and Hellman remains the most vital in the show. If only there were more such scenes. The actors onstage could pull them off.
With the help of Dan Ostling's revealingly environmental set, Dehnert and White's treatment of the final few minutes, when the show is much stronger — sets of anonymous victim's clothes are seen being removed, on pegs, from symbolic buckets of water — is gut-wrenching and inspired. The actors Christine Mary Dunford and Laurence E. Distasi carry much emotional water here. "Perhaps once known to mischievous tricks/Now merely known as Boy 396," goes one lyric in this scene, making you think of the horror of the way the young can be taken. But before we arrive at the sad aftermath, we need a fuller, clearer, more honest and vibrant picture of the complexities and little banalities of these ordinary lives lost, in the very city they were helping to build.
When: Through July 29
Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N.Michigan Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $24-$68 at 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org