Gary Ambler was feeling great when he got off the el at Austin about 3 AM on July 27. A downstate actor and co-artistic director of a new theater company, Faces Like Swords, Ambler had been out with friends who'd come to see him perform that night. Faces Like Swords was doing Harold Pinter's The Caretaker in a six-week run at the Chopin Theatre studio on Division. It was the company's first attempt to make a mark in Chicago's competitive theater scene, and now, three weekends in, they'd hit the sweet spot: a couple of great reviews had just come out. If the reviews attracted bigger audiences for the last half of the run, it looked like they might actually break even on the production. That would be frosting on the cake for Ambler, a central Illinois native who's been acting and directing in Urbana's Celebration Company for 25 years.
Faces Like Swords grew out of work Ambler and cofounder Jerrett Dapier had done at Celebration. They met four years ago when Dapier, then a freshman at University of Illinois, auditioned for a show Ambler was directing there; they began planning two years ago to bring something to the big city. Last spring, when Dapier graduated and moved back to Chicago (he's a teacher, Ambler is a U. of I. admissions counselor), they created the nonprofit company and raised enough money to make The Caretaker happen. In May Ambler began kissing his wife and son goodbye and catching the bus to Chicago for four-day rehearsal weekends. He had the title role in the three-man show, and it required him to get into the mind of a paranoid codger riddled with fears of being attacked by nameless thugs. His younger cohorts would be played by Dapier (who also directed) and Dave Stinton. The show opened July 12; Lawrence Bommer, reviewing for the Reader on July 26, found that "Ambler's wheedling Davies is shuffling, sinister hostility masquerading as humility. His eyes couldn't be hungrier, his hands more grasping as he suggests every whining loser..."
So on the night of the 27th, "feeling like we were onto something," Ambler enjoyed a postshow beer, then asked his friends to drop him at the Blue Line stop on Belmont so he could head out to Oak Park, where he was bunking with other buddies. He was comfortable in the city, he says, and "always felt safe on the el." But it was later than usual when he got off, and he decided to alter his path. "I would usually go down Harrison to Humphrey," he says. "But that night I stayed on Austin because it was lighter and there were more bodies about." He passed two brightly lit gas stations with cop cars idling out front and walked north a couple of blocks toward Jackson "without paying a whole lot of attention." A man walking a half block ahead of him turned once, as if to check him out, and then, "as I was turning on Jackson," Ambler says, "he turned around again and shouted something to me." His words caught Ambler by surprise. It sounded like "There are these kids! They're coming after you! Run!" Ambler looked back and saw four figures emerge from Columbus Park, running diagonally across Austin in his direction. "I kept walking," he says. "I didn't think they'd follow me, but I was about to turn on Humphrey when I saw them come down Jackson and sort of split up." The significance of that hit him: "They were taking positions." He raced around the corner and up the steps of a house with two of the pursuers on his heels. "Is this your house?" they demanded. "Yes," Ambler bluffed. "You're lying," they said, but they faded back into the darkness for a moment, perhaps unsure. Ambler drew a breath and pulled out his cell phone. "I thought I'd call my friends," he says. "I was just a block away from their house."
What happened next plays in Ambler's memory like jump cuts on a movie screen. "They came back immediately. One kid grabbed my phone, then reached behind and took my wallet from my back pocket. A smaller kid came up the steps with a gun. It didn't even look real to me, but I was suddenly aware of it. It came up the steps, then retreated, then came into my vision again. The kid with my wallet ran down the steps, and the smaller kid shot." His assailants vanished as fast as they had come, but for Ambler the moment happened in slow motion, "all in pieces," he says. "I heard the noise. Then I fell, straight down. I looked at my leg and saw there was a hole in my khakis. Then I saw there was blood. And then I felt it. I was really clear for a few seconds. I pounded on the door and yelled, and then I started losing it. The next thing I remember was people talking to me. I felt like they were in a different room. Then I saw they were police."
Doctors at Loyola Hospital told Ambler his femur was shattered. They planted a metal rod in his thigh, screwed the remains of his bone to it, and told him he was lucky he hadn't been hit higher up. They say the pain should be gone and he should be back to normal in a year, though he'll still have a rod and a bullet in his thigh. Oak Park police commander Robert Scianna says the four alleged attackers were in custody within minutes of the shooting: one is 17 years old, two are 14, and the kid accused of pulling the trigger is 13. The robbery netted them $20 from Ambler's wallet. Scianna says this was not organized gang activity, but is part of "a dramatic increase in juvenile crime" in a hot, "out of control" summer.
The remainder of the Caretaker run was canceled. Dapier says at a minimum Faces Like Swords will lose its security deposit on the theater rental; he hopes they can remount the show in the future. Ambler says it has new meaning for him. "There's a place in the play where one character warns another that anonymous forces can come in at any time and carry him away," he says. "And that's how it feels. Something completely out of our control picked us up and put us somewhere else. In two seconds everything changed." Ambler says now he can't shake those lines: "They can put the pincers on your head again, man! They can have them on again! Any time. All they got to do is get the word. They'd carry you in there, boy. They'd come here and pick you up and carry you in!"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ted Veatch.