If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s probably happened to a friend: You’re traveling in a remote part of the world and mention to a cabdriver or a souvenir hawker that you’re from Chicago. “Chicago!” he says, sticking his thumb and index finger out like a kid playing cops and robbers. “Al Capone!”

Kenan Heise has been wondering for years why Capone achieved such international fame, why, as he says, “Capone’s name was known in parts of the world where people had never heard of Christ or Abraham Lincoln.” His research on this question has culminated in his one-man play Alphonse, which will be performed this weekend at Heise’s Chicago Historical Bookworks in Evanston.

Heise’s writing of the play is closely connected to the store, which grew from an extensive personal collection of books on Chicago. “When I first started, I collected all books on Chicago except crime and music. I didn’t think they were as related as other subjects. And the more I got into them accidentally the more I discovered that they were. The Chicago style of crime is as much a part of the city’s history as anything.”

That style, he says, existed as long as it did only because of the “amorphous rebellion” that took place in Chicago against the stern dictates of Prohibition. Chicagoans supported or at least tolerated Capone because his bootlegging was a desired service and represented a stand against governmental repression. In a supportive atmosphere and with masterful use of the tommy gun, Capone’s empire flourished.

After the Depression hit, though, people no longer looked so kindly on Capone’s fur coats and ostentation. In 1932 Capone’s associate Eddie O’Hare turned the mob chief in by reporting Capone’s intention to bribe jurors at his tax-evasion trial. O’Hare, father of the war hero after whom the airport is named, is one of about a dozen characters featured in the play, which is set in the early 1940s, soon after Capone’s release from prison. The characters appear only in Capone’s mind. This is no longer the powerful Capone played by Robert De Niro in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables; rather, this is a man just out of prison who is ill with tertiary syphilis. “He’s at his home in Florida, he’s fishing,” says Heise. “The character Capone is a man who knows how to seize power and control. He knows the little things on how to do that, but he’s not able to do that. So it’s a study of a person who’s had a lot of power, who still thinks he has it, who tries to exercise all the little controls, the ways that one takes control and exercises power–and it doesn’t happen. And it is a person who hasn’t given up; he still orders people dead in the play, he still does all kinds of things, but it doesn’t work. It’s a question of impotence–of power and impotence.”

The play revolves around Capone’s loss of power, as seen through his recollections of both his trial and serving his prison sentence. The years he spent on Alcatraz, notes Heise, marked the disintegration of Capone’s influence; when a prisoner’s death provoked a strike among inmates, “Capone didn’t strike. And another prisoner got up behind him and stuck him in the back with a scissors. The old Capone would have led the strike.”

Michael Azzariti, the actor who plays Capone, says that it’s precisely “when he loses control that Capone is most dangerous. The bad things that Capone does occur when he’s out of control”–like the time, for example, he personally murdered three of his lieutenants who had been stealing beer.

Most of the time, though, Capone was not only in control, he was a “consummate actor,” according to Azzariti. “His rapport with the press was amazing.” Still, the challenge of the play lies not only in portraying Capone, but also in acting out Capone’s recollections of the other characters, who range from mob enforcers to J. Edgar Hoover. “It was more than just the role of Al Capone that attracted me to the play–it was also simultaneously being Capone and one of his antagonists. That person that Al Capone is imagining has to be real enough for the audience to understand.”

The range of viewpoints reveals how the personality of one man influenced an entire city. “Alphonse shows Al Capone as a real and vulnerable man, it shows his battle for control of himself and the city,” says Azzariti. Compared to other portrayals, “it’s a little more real, a little more close to home.”

Alphonse will be performed at Chicago Historical Bookworks, 831 Main St. in Evanston, tonight, July 17, and Monday, July 20, at 8 PM. Admission is free, but seating is limited; call 869-6410 to reserve seats.

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