My quintessential New York moment? I’m standing beside a sculptor in the Museum of Modern Art gift shop a few days after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Her next piece is going to be about that horrible event, she tells her friend. “I mean, I’ve got to do something!”
My quintessential Los Angeles moment? A waiter asking me if I know anyone at Second City who might be interested in producing his movie script.
My quintessential Chicago moment? I’m at a loss. Drunk Cubs fans pissing in the alley under my bedroom window? People describing anything that pleases them, even slightly, as “awesome”? Affluent white folks listening to the blues? CTA riders ignoring one another? Fat cops being unhelpful?
After 29 years here, I’ve yet to pick up on a vibe that typifies Chicago. It’s the most comfortable, attitude-free big city I’ve ever visited—a place where most residents go about their lives with little interest in fitting into a Chicago lifestyle. The essence of Chicago is that it’s got no essence, except maybe shitty weather.
As if to prove my point, Theatre Seven of Chicago has opened its sixth season with We Live Here, a collection of autobiographical monologues by eight local writers, describing “quintessential Chicago moments.” With the exception of a dutiful piece about a misery-soaked el ride after a particularly heartbreaking Cubs defeat, the stories could be transplanted to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo just by changing a few street names.
Newly arrived in town with dreams of becoming a superstar writer, a college freshman suffers debilitating back pain and ultimately passes a kidney stone. A bartender falls for a coworker who turns to him mainly for advice on the men she’s dating. A bike messenger loses the sympathy of her bike messenger boyfriend after suffering a series of crashes. (“It’s the nature of the job,” she says. “It’s the nature of the biker,” he corrects.)
The stories mostly use Chicago incidentally, as a backdrop. Despite a smattering of local details—walking along the Magnificent Mile, watching July 3 fireworks from the beach, gazing at the city through the floor-to-ceiling window in the ladies’ room at the Signature Lounge—none captures anything unique to Chicago.
Which isn’t to say they aren’t good. Although often either sketchy or overwritten, the stories affectingly recount moments when ambition and idealism run headlong into practicality and misfortune.
The standout is Laura Eason’s piece about being pregnant and anxious and veering away from a dreaded sonogram appointment to follow a handsome young man down Michigan Avenue. The writing is packed with resonant details, yet every incident contributes to the final payoff. Eason even manages to superimpose musings about the Chicago fire without straining the metaphor.
The staging is inventive and engaging throughout. Working with a nimble, affable, occasionally overzealous ensemble, directors Margot Bordelon and Cassy Sanders reinvigorate the cliches of physical theater (lots of symbolic gestures, choral movement) to create an unaffected, expressive theatrical language.
The problem is that the whole effort is designed to convince an audience that We Live Here is first and foremost about life in Chicago—rather than, say, pivotal moments in young writers’ lives. A program note explains that the show attempts to “do dramatic justice to our relationship with the place we call home.” Taped interviews played between stories show “real Chicagoans” describing life in the city. These ready-for-WTTW videos rarely offer anything more than facile, hackneyed descriptions of local life—the parking is awful, the winters are harsh, but the “neighborhood feel” is great. And occasionally they fall into meaningless boosterism. One unidentified talking head assures us that Chicago offers “something new around every corner.” Banalities aside, the interviews continually set up expectations the stories don’t deliver. The production is at odds with itself.
Worse still, given the show’s announced attempt to distill Chicago’s essence, the stories never venture west of Humboldt Park or south of the Loop. We’re asked to accept the experiences of a narrow sampling as something universal.