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They All Fall Down: The Richard Nickel Story

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts

Early in Lookingglass’s new play, the ghost of Louis Sullivan says to architectural photographer-preservationist Richard Nickel, “Every building you see comes from a person you don’t see.” And though Sullivan is talking about the spirit of the architect as reflected in bricks, steel, mortar, and glass, his words also refer to Nickel himself: many Chicago buildings owe their continued existence to him because, in the words of Kansas City Star architecture critic Donald Hoffmann, he “hit the barricades before anybody knew there was a war.”

Adapted by Laura Eason and Jessica Thebus from Richard Cahan’s 1994 biography, this play is a loving, intelligent, gorgeous tribute to both Nickel and Sullivan–and as directed by Thebus, beautifully synthesizes ideas about theater, photography, and architecture. It’s also a clarion call for honoring the importance of buildings to the soul of a city, a message perhaps more critical than ever as debates begin about what should be done with the land now occupied by the World Trade Center’s rubble.

Nickel is an unlikely hero. Socially awkward, blustering, impatient, and self-righteous, he was far more inclined to make fools suffer than to suffer fools. Late in the play, Larry Neumann Jr. as Nickel explains to his brother the motivation for his fervor: “If you aren’t analytical about everything and everyone, pretty soon you’re a slob in the company of slobs.” Calling others slobs is hardly the way to win friends and influence people, but Nickel’s passion for Sullivan–which began with photography assignments at the Institute of Design, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology–obviously did influence many people. Even before Nickel died, at the age of 43, his iconic photos of Burnham and Root’s Rookery Building were displayed in the City Council chambers and helped win landmark status for that building, the oldest on LaSalle.

Though They All Fall Down: The Richard Nickel Story is often stunning in its imagery and characterizations, there are some problems with the script. At the show’s outset we’re told that Nickel “disappeared” in 1972 during a trip to Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building during its demolition. It’s not until the end that we discover he died while salvaging Sullivan’s ornamentation when a floor collapsed beneath him. This teasing approach is unnecessary and disingenuous: Nickel’s fate is probably well-known to anyone with even cursory knowledge of his work. Besides, it’s not how the man died that’s fascinating–it’s how he lived.

Yet his life is somewhat obscured by this production (audience members who haven’t read Cahan’s book will be at a disadvantage). In their desire to convey Nickel’s solitariness, Eason and Thebus occasionally fall into the trap of depicting him as a lonely martyr. And other Sullivan defenders, most notably John Vinci, get short shrift. Vinci–who saved most of the ornamentation from the old Trading Room of the Stock Exchange, now at the Art Institute–is presented here more as Nickel’s errand boy and acolyte than as a preservationist in his own right. And though Francois Battiste gives the character an understatement and pragmatism that mesh nicely with Neumann’s prickly Nickel, the role remains underdeveloped.

The conversations between Nickel and Sullivan’s ghost provide the show’s philosophical underpinnings but sometimes veer into fortune-cookie territory. (At one point Sullivan tells the weary, frustrated Nickel, “You are free to choose your own way.”) As Sullivan, Thomas J. Cox is a dapper contrast to the hopelessly rumpled Nickel (Susan Haas designed the note-perfect costumes), but I wish there’d been more of an emotional center to his performance. As it stands, Sullivan’s scenes with Nickel don’t have high enough stakes–they’re like something from “Touched by an Architect.”

Sullivan the artist is very much alive in this show, however. In one particularly hypnotic scene, Nickel stands under the proscenium arches of the soon-to-be-demolished Garrick Theater (considered by many to be the best design by Sullivan and Dankmar Adler) while ghostly past performances appear in the far background. Created by set designer John Musial with nothing more than a scrim and a receding series of rods bent into the shape of arches, this stunning architectural re-creation is set off by Michelle Habeck’s vibrant, magical lighting. More than any other company I’ve encountered, Lookingglass has the ability to create visceral images of inspiration and ecstasy. This scene makes abundantly clear all the reasons that Sullivan’s work mattered to Nickel–and should matter to anyone who cares about the beauty and sanctity of public spaces.

An earlier segment wittily portrays the sensuality of Sullivan’s ornamentation. Each of three women seated beneath slides of his work (Michael Brosilow designed the projections, many taken from Nickel’s photographs) teasingly describes an aspect of it (“the terra-cotta skin molded over the framework”), then slides out of her coat, leaving it draped over the chair like a lovely shell. Capturing the tactile nature of Sullivan’s architecture and our fragmentary experience of it, this sequence helps us understand how it mesmerized Nickel, who filled a huge room at Navy Pier with pieces he salvaged. (When museums refused to take the entire collection, many of these pieces deteriorated beyond repair and ended up in Lake Michigan. Interestingly, the Art Institute feared that a collection devoted to Sullivan would make them appear “provincial.”)

Neumann’s bravura performance is the show’s crowning achievement. It’s no easy task to make us fall in love with an irritating fellow devoid of social graces. At first Neumann pitches his voice at an unnaturally high volume, suggesting that Nickel doesn’t really know how he comes across. But when Nickel describes looking at a particular piece of Sullivan’s, calling it “the pleasure of my life,” Neumann’s voice drops for the first time to a warm, natural tone. And when he decries the destruction of buildings in the name of urban renewal, Nickel seems to be witnessing vivisections instead of demolitions.

The solid supporting cast play everyone from harried pedestrians to fellow photography students to petitioners for the Garrick’s preservation. Andrew White is especially noteworthy in two performances. As the representative for Balaban and Katz–the owners of the Garrick, who were gunning for a demolition permit–White captures the chilly bemusement of a corporate shill who can’t imagine why anyone cares about a ratty old building and who resents having to maintain a public shrine at the expense of a commercial enterprise. Playing Donald Nickel, Richard’s brother, White is charming and warm and a bit puzzled that Nickel has given so much of his life to this quixotic enterprise.

Nickel didn’t really understand it himself, though we see that his devotion to Sullivan gave him his calling and his voice. By the end of his life, Nickel was turning away from architectural salvage. He was engaged to be married (among several restaurant scenes is a pointedly happy one between him and his fiancee, played by Julia Neary). He was spending more time on his sailboat and less at demolition sites. He’d promised himself and his fiancee that the Stock Exchange would be his last Sullivan reclamation effort. And it was. But thanks to Lookingglass and Neumann, we have this remarkable portrait of a rather ordinary fellow who assured his place in history by recognizing the greatness of another artist.

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