Illustrating fire on stage is a challenge, especially when it’s the subject of an entire play.
Such is the case in “The Great Fire,” which launched the 2011-2012 season at the Tony Award-winning Lookingglass Theatre.
“The Great Fire,” which is about the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, uses no open flames. Instead, a woman embodies the incessant fire, the cause of the city’s destruction and the death of hundreds. The use of lights, red confetti and an explosive set bring the fire’s unstoppable path to life in what is a striking piece of original theater.
Written and directed by Lookinglass ensemble member John Musial, “The Great Fire” is a collection of stories told by several people who experienced the fire. Many of the characters are inspired by real Chicagoans, including a circuit court judge, a corrupt alderman, and, of course, the O’Leary family.
Aside from Lindsey Noel Whiting—who played The Fire with commanding energy—the 6 other ensemble members take on numerous roles without a flinch. Men play women, women play men and they all break the fourth wall, telling their story directly to the audience. At one point, Fire Marshal Williams (Gary Wingert) unfurls a map upstage to explain the fire’s path through the city. He even talks about the theater’s ironic location in the Water Tower Water Works—the only public building in the burn zone to survive the fire.
But “The Great Fire” isn’t just a history lesson. Musial says the story of the Great Chicago Fire is “the creation myth of our city,” and that is exactly what his play achieves. “The Great Fire” shows Chicago at its lowest, before it rose phoenix-like from the ashes.
“The Great Fire” runs at the Lookingglass Theatre through December 4. For tickets call 312-337-0665 or visit the theater website.