On Stage: the city behind the artifice, 1893 | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Stage: the city behind the artifice, 1893

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When Virginia Smith was growing up in Fosston, Minnesota (a town, she says, that could double for Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon), she was aware that her ancestors had moved to the United States from England and had been involved in the Revolutionary War. So she told her father she'd like to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. Sorry, he said, her (many times) great grandfather, Captain James Wheeler, had indeed been in the war, but on the wrong side; he had supported the Brits. Later, her father shared fascinating stories of other relatives who had fought in the Civil War--for the Confederacy.

These unhappy alliances notwithstanding, Smith's imagination was fired by stories of her ancestors and the times in which they lived. As an actress, playwright, and director, she's had the opportunity to plunge into history in a variety of settings. When she and her husband Doug lived in Deadwood, South Dakota, in the early 70s, she read the local lore and wrote a play about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. When they lived in Boulder, Colorado, in the mid-70s, Smith dug into local Native American history and participated in a filmstrip on Indian culture. When they moved to Duluth, Minnesota, in the later 70s, she authored a children's melodrama whose title, Sidetracked in Duluth, is a pun on the town's longstanding image as a layover for freight trains; she also worked on a stage re-creation of an old Duluth radio show.

After the couple moved to Chicago in 1980, Virginia Smith continued her theater career, appearing in numerous productions at Victory Gardens, the Body Politic, and other theaters. She's also written two plays involving the Haymarket riots, two children's plays, and several plays used by corporations for sensitivity training on issues of race and disability.

Soon after her arrival here, Smith began studying about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, a colossal display of invention and entertainment that lured some 29 million visitors (almost half the population of the United States). She found herself walking around Jackson Park, trying to imagine what the exotic array of exposition buildings must have looked like 100 years ago. It intrigued Smith that the massive structures celebrating technical advances (like electricity and indoor plumbing) were, in fact, fragile shells of wood and chicken wire and plaster of paris painted to look like marble. The fair was, in fact, a "frothy confection, a grand illusion."

"Six months before the exposition opened," Smith says, "most hadn't yet been built, and six months after it ended, they were all gone"--burned, collapsed, or picked up and moved elsewhere.

There formed in her fertile mind the idea for a play--a musical, as it has turned out--about someone coming of age in the midst of all that glitter and discovering behind the glitz the city's grimmer, more enduring realities. The result, Fair City, is having its world premiere this week at Roosevelt University's O'Malley Theatre.

Fair City began gestating in earnest almost two years ago. Mark Elliott, director of musical theater at DePaul, wrote the music and lyrics, and this production is directed by Doug Finlayson. The final result might be described as a combination of Les Miserables and Thoroughly Modern Millie with a touch of On the Waterfront.

"It's gone through ten rewrites at least," says Smith. "I was so fascinated with the people and the times of the 1890s that the first draft could have been subtitled "The Joy of Facts."' Smith has since trimmed the facts a bit, though the piece still includes a lot of history and a panoply of historical characters, including Bathhouse John Coughlin and his associate Hinky Dink Kenna (two of Chicago history's more notorious rogues), with cameo appearances by Mayor Carter H. Harrison, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and others. The play includes a cast of 22 and a five-piece orchestra, and through the use of projections, the experiences of spinning in a Ferris wheel (the first one was introduced at the fair), riding in a tethered balloon, and touring Little Egypt.

Fair City runs April 15 through 24 at the O'Malley Theatre of Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan. General admission is $10, $6 for seniors and students, and $5 for children under 12. For more information see Section Two or call 341-3719.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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