Sentimental Coast of Chicago bridges Pilsen’s postwar past and present

By Rose Dichter Schapiro

The Lookingglass Theatre’s production of The Coast of Chicago is framed by a powerful question, spoken by a slightly hammy narrator in the first scene as he peers up towards the ceiling. The narrator, played with a sort of overly intense nostalgia, asks, “Will I ever leave this city?” His semi-wistful sentiment is immediately echoed from the past by younger versions of himself, and the audience is pulled back into the history of both the single, nameless character and the city he has experienced.

Coast is based on a lovely book of short stories by Stuart Dybek. It has been adapted for the stage by Laura Eason, who manages to keep the overall gist of Dybek’s complicated book: the myriad characters, the vision of Chicago as a city that can both be very bleak and very lively. There is a focus on the collision of cultures in neighborhoods and the sense of everyday miracles that pervade lives.

Dybek’s book did not have a singular narrator, and the loss of those multiple voices in the play is a blow to his vision of the city. However, despite the collapse of the many different narrators in the book into a single middle-aged man, the idea of a vibrant and varied city still comes across in the stage version.

The Lookingglass Theatre is located in the impressive Chicago Waterworks Building on Michigan Avenue. The theater itself is gorgeous, set up so that the audience surrounds a dark multilevel set. For this production, the set-up works exceptionally. One of the lessons of both the play and the book is that a city is composed of everyone and everything that has ever lived in it. The action in Coast takes place on all levels of the set, and one of the most gratifying things about the play is seeing the animated faces of the audience members from across the stage.

Eason pares Dybek’s multiple stories down to a core two, with references to other stories and occurrences that also appear in the book. The first half of the play concerns the narrator as a young boy, living in a small apartment in Pilsen in the years following World War II. The building is filled with Polish immigrants, including a piano player named Marcie who went off to Julliard and came home, pregnant, to a disapproving mother.

Marcie plays Chopin endlessly, and as the nameless boy struggles with his homework, he learns to love and to listen for Marcie’s etudes and waltzes and polonaises. In such a small apartment building, everything is connected, and the music travels effortlessly from Marcie’s fingers to the residents’ ears. Even dilapidation and awkwardness lead to a communal beauty in this building, and everyone is touched by the sounds of Chopin in winter.

The second part of the play focuses on the narrator as a teenager. It involves the hunt through a blighted city for a mythical virgin enclosed in a block of ice. This part of the play is defined by the stark contrast between how things once were and how they are now. “It used to be different” is the constant refrain, spoken by character after character, a wistful look in each pair of eyes.

This part of the play is more overwhelmingly manic and mystical, focusing less on the idea of family and sorrow and more on the magic that pervades everyday life in such a complex setting as Chicago. The characters travel all over the city, fueled by drugs and nostalgia, just looking for something to do, something else to experience. Mourning a friend who is in jail, they look to honor his legacy by searching out the places he told them about, by doing what he cannot.

There is mystery in the neighborhood, which is full of urban blight but also a weird hope for renewal. The second part of the play is less overwhelmingly sentimental than the first, but it is actually less hopeful. The characters it focuses on may be going nowhere, but the audience is never quite sure. The search for a young woman frozen in ice matters, but finding her won’t really solve any of their problems.

Antonio Machado’s quote serves as an epigraph to both the play and the book—“Out of the whole of memory, there’s one thing worthwhile: the great gift of calling back dreams.” This process (the intersection of dreams and memories, or possibly the birth of dreams from memories) is what centers the play. There are surrealistic touches that are aided by the theatrics of the production: a virgin enclosed in ice, snow falling in a blackout, music playing after the musician has departed. These are things that seem familiar yet weird and are embodied in the play itself. Though the dreams appear to belong to an individual, they really belong to the whole audience, and by extension, to the whole city.

Though Coast can seem overly nostalgic at times, the play is well performed and engaging. It really works to address what it is like to be part of a community where events touch you, whether they happen to you or not. The answer to the question, “Will I ever leave this city?” is a resounding no, but throughout the play it is replaced by a bigger and more universal question: After living in Chicago, how can the city ever leave you?