BUILDING SYMPATHY: The Richard Nickel Story, Center Theater Ensemble. Jessica Thebus’s remarkable elegy for a Chicago cultural hero, Richard Nickel, is a stimulating, playful dream of a life. True to her commitment to creative transformations in the Bread and Puppet/Redmoon style, Thebus tells the story in 22 scenes using animated costumes and props, movies and slides that create highly specific, evocative scenery, and energetic actors who vividly play the city of Chicago as well as Nickel’s friends. Even audiences unfamiliar with Nickel will be drawn into the story of this avid, eccentric preservationist, who fought for years to protect Louis Sullivan’s buildings only to die in 1972, on the eve of his wedding, when a floor collapsed as he was trying to save ornamentation in the Stock Exchange Building.
As philosophical as it is visually astonishing, Building Sympathy explores the intimate relationship between art and human character. Although a few scenes seem to repeat themes or images unnecessarily, most of them come together to form a moving meditation on the spirituality of architecture. “Every building you see is the image of a man you do not see,” Sullivan once wrote. Through Nickel’s eyes, Thebus shows us that the buildings we do not see–either because we don’t notice them or because they’ve been destroyed–are part of the city’s pulse, artifacts animated or wasted by the people who make them, use them, and destroy them. Combining whimsy and intelligence with a skillful theatrical blueprint, this play ably represents Nickel’s remarkable, oddly tragic vision of the personalities of great buildings.