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On Stage: legends of the fall

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In the early 1930s, so the story goes, a young Polish woman was killed in a car crash on the way back from a dance at the O'Henry Ballroom on the south side. Since then many people have reported picking up a young woman in a fancy dress along Archer Avenue, only to see her disappear from her seat as the car passed Resurrection Cemetery. One story has a passerby noticing a woman locked behind the cemetery's fence after dark and calling the police. When the police arrived, they didn't find anyone--but they did discover two bars of the gate bent outward, bearing the imprint of human hands. The legend of Resurrection Mary has been a favorite Chicago ghost tale for years.

"There's another story where people thought they hit somebody and got out of the car and nobody was there," says Michele Volansky, dramaturge of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. "It's very similar to the urban legend of the woman in white, but this is so specific to that area of Resurrection Cemetery that I don't think it's a variation."

Director Jessica Thebus had explored ghost stories for a piece she did at the Heartland Studio Theatre in 1992 called Beyond the Pale. She and Volansky decided to tackle the subject again for Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange program, which produces locally themed plays aimed at students and families. To research Whispering City: Great Chicago Ghost Stories they talked to ghost chasers, read books about hauntings, and visited supposedly haunted places. They saw The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense in the same day. "We were going to see Stir of Echoes too, but we couldn't take it," says Thebus. "We got too scared."

Another story that made it into the play is the one about "the devil baby of Hull-House," an urban legend that seized the city's imagination around 1913 and then abruptly disappeared. According to the tale, a woman gave birth to a baby with a forked tongue and a tail after her husband drunkenly announced he'd rather see the devil in his house than have another child. The baby was supposedly given to Jane Addams and kept in the attic of Hull-House, where it could be seen in a window smoking a cigar--when it wasn't driving around the city in its red car. "People came from all corners of the city to see the baby or offer a cure," says Volansky. "They were convinced that Jane Addams was keeping a baby hidden in the attic."

Thebus says one reason such stories have so much power is that they serve as "warning tales. If you have too much fun or ignore the warnings of elders, then this thing happens. A lot of the explanations as to why the devil baby existed were about cultural taboos--about unwed mothers or sin or religious teachings being disobeyed. It's also an expression of being in a dangerous new place and losing the values of the country you came from...but who knows? There's also the element of mystery--where did it start, and how did so many people know about it?"

In the course of her research Thebus heard a rumor that a weird-looking child can occasionally be seen today in an upstairs window of Hull-House. Thebus didn't see anything on her visit, but she did find "something funny about the stairs--they look odd. The room is built funny and the stairs curl around strangely. It gives you a strange feeling, even though it's not an apparition. But it's a really strange detail that sticks in your mind."

The pair used such details--"things we see all the time but with a darker shadow underneath them"--to underscore the legends enacted in Whispering City. "Movies like The Blair Witch Project showed how scary a pile of rocks can be, or a branch of a tree. It's much scarier than a movie like The Haunting, where it's all special effects. What scares us is really in our minds," says Thebus.

Perhaps that's why it's no small task to make these stories work onstage. "The audience is used to people telling them things that are made up," says Thebus. "So the play starts out with a line about the theater, that it's actually a space where spirits of the dead are brought to life every night--where all kinds of dead people speak again and walk again.

"There's a reason for telling these stories again--a lot of people don't know them. And they're really a fascinating part of the place where we live."

Whispering City: Great Chicago Ghost Stories will be performed at 11 AM Saturdays at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through October 23. Tickets cost $10; call 312-335-1650. Additional performances will be presented at 7 on October 28 and 29 and at 3 on October 30 and 31 at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark at North; tickets for these shows are $7, $3 for kids (call 312-642-4600 for reservations).

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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