Lookingglass’ “Eastland” a Tragically Fine Tale

No one famous died when an excursion boat called the Eastland tipped over in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915.

“Only dusty men with dusty books know or care who was lost,” a character sings near the sorrowful conclusion of Lookingglass Theatre’s new musical “Eastland.”

By the end of Andrew White’s moving and finely etched historical drama, we may not know the names of the 884 people who lost their lives in this staggering tragedy, but we do certainly care about these working-class Chicagoans. There’s a wistful, nostalgic glow in the scenes from their everyday lives before tragedy struck, even though those memories as darkened by the difficulties of living in Chicago in that era — the city’s pervasive stench and the mind-numbing factory work.

And then the real darkness descends. Each scene of family and factory life ends in a snap — a flashback giving way to the nightmare of the Eastland’s sinking. The lighting suddenly dims, water is heard splashing, and Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman’s tuneful folk-influenced songs drop away, the musical score sinking down to ominous bass notes. One girl (Claire Wellin) desperately clings to life inside the capsized boat. A young man who calls himself “The Human Frog” (Doug Hara) dives into the water again and again, egged on by the phantomlike figure of Harry Houdini (Derek Hasenstab) — an effective touch of magic realism.

Directed by Amanda Dehnert, the ensemble cast succeeds in making the disaster’s victims feel authentic and sympathetic, singing heartfelt songs with natural ease. In a remarkable transformation, scenic designer Dan Ostling has turned the Lookingglass Theatre into a space resembling a boat’s deck as well as a makeshift church under a tent’s canvas. The room (which includes actual church pews for the audience) heightens the sense that we should watch these terrible events with reverence, but the Lookingglass team tells the heavy story with a light touch, including some necessary moments of levity.

Inevitably, it all ends in death and tears, but “Eastland” is not a dreary dirge. It blows the dust off those history books, revealing a compelling glimpse of what life was like in Chicago a century ago.

“Eastland: A New Musical” continues through July 29 at Lookingglass Theater, 821 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. For tickets and show times, see www.lookingglasstheatre.org or call 312-337-0665.