As the audience settled in its seats last Wednesday night, an old man, his shoulders slumped, shuffled onto the stage at the Victory Gardens Theater. He moved slowly, almost ponderously, and in a nasal twang offered his bittersweet observations on life’s ups and downs.

The character, a retired college professor named Hank, is one of the central personalities in Jeffrey Sweet’s newest play, Immoral Imperatives. But to audience and cast members in the know, he’s a reincarnation of Dennis Zacek, the actor who plays him. “It’s amazing how much of Dennis is in Hank,” says Tim Grimm, another actor in the play. “It’s the speech, the walk, the views–everything.”

In many ways, Zacek’s performance is a celebration of his life as Victory Gardens’ artistic director over the last 25 years. It’s not just that Hank’s character–with his deliberate delivery and dry humor–seems so quintessentially Zacek. It’s also that the production keeps him in the spotlight after a particularly triumphant year. Last June Victory Gardens won a Tony award for best regional theater, and it’s currently negotiating a move to a bigger space at the Biograph Theater. Against all odds, Zacek and his company have managed to survive in a grinding business where so many others have failed.

“People want to know our great secret, as if there is a great secret,” says Zacek. “It’s just a very practical application of things I learned growing up in Chicago. You just take it one day at a time and you don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

A fixture on Lincoln Avenue, Zacek was born and raised in Pilsen, not far from Cook County Jail. “My father was an aspiring artist, and he wanted to go to the Art Institute, but my grandfather thought he should do something more practical, so he became a machinist. He was the head machinist at a printing firm. In many ways I’m vicariously living out my father’s artistic dreams.”

Zacek’s family lived in a small house near the corner of 25th and California. He went to a local Catholic grammar school. “There were four nuns and a cook. It was an expanded version of a one-room schoolhouse.”

In 1954 he started at St. Rita’s, a conservative high school with a strong emphasis on sports, particularly football. The kids who dared to embrace art were considered rebels. Zacek says he fell into no particular camp. “I wasn’t a big rebel and I wasn’t a jock. I went out for football but I think I lasted mainly a day. I was just going to school, trying to keep my head out of water.”

He moved on to DePaul for college. “I was floundering, not knowing what I wanted to do, when I took a speech class taught by Al Martin. That was in my junior year. And as melodramatic as it sounds, I found my calling. It’s hard to explain, but I discovered this fundamental exhilaration from performing.”

After graduating from DePaul, he earned a PhD in theater at Northwestern (his dissertation was on “the acting technique of Edwin Booth”). He met Marcelle McVay, a sociology major, and in 1970 they married and he went to work as a theater professor at Loyola University. “I had a few roles in local productions–my Equity debut was in a play called Strangle Me. I played a Bulgarian jewel thief.

“I was still searching for my ultimate vocation. Of course I knew it would be in theater, but I didn’t want it to be a stepping-stone to New York or commercials or whatever. I very much wanted my life to be about Chicago theater. There was, and is, a definite Chicago sensibility about rehearsing and performing. I remember being in a cafeteria at Northwestern many years ago and having a vivid daydream of starting my own theater in Chicago.”

He wasn’t the only young actor with such a dream. In the 1970s dozens of small theaters were started up in storefronts and churches, each in its own way emulating a model created by Hull House, which tried to bring relevant and affordable theater to Chicago neighborhoods. One company that emerged in 1974 was Victory Gardens.

“It was originally located in the old North Side Auditorium Theater at 3730 N. Clark, which now houses Metro,” says Daniel Moser, a PhD candidate at Northwestern’s Department of Performance Studies who’s written a dissertation on Victory Gardens and its role in the Chicago theater movement. “The name was based on the so-called victory gardens of fruit and vegetables that people grew in their backyards during World War II. It was the company’s way of saying this will be homegrown talent.”

Zacek acted in and directed several Victory Gardens productions, most notably a heralded version of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker that featured Frank Galati and William Norris. In 1976 he took over as artistic director. “At the time, Victory Gardens was run by eight individual artistic directors, and it was chaos,” says Zacek. “Allen Turner, who was on the advisory board, said to me, ‘You know, I’ve looked at theaters across the country and I can’t find any that have eight artistic directors. If you want to be the artistic director I’ll back you.’ I said, ‘What about the others?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll be thrilled.’ And that’s the way it happened. There was no resistance, no objections. It wasn’t a bloody coup.”

McVay took over as managing director soon thereafter. In 1980 the theater moved to its current location at 2257 N. Lincoln, and as the years moved on it developed its style. “I like to say that the Goodman is a director’s theater and Steppenwolf is an actor’s theater, but we are a writer’s theater,” says Zacek.

Victory Gardens specializes in new plays, many of them written by its ensemble of 12 playwrights: Claudia Allen, Lonnie Carter, Steve Carter, Gloria Bond Clunie, Dean Corrin, John Logan, Nicholas Patricca, Douglas Post, James Sherman, Charles Smith, Jeffrey Sweet, and Kristine Thatcher. As a group, they generally avoid violent or sensational themes, concentrating instead on highly personal melodramas centered on humorously offbeat characters.

Many of the plays are directed by Zacek. “He has his own style,” says Linda Reiter, who costars with Zacek in Immoral Imperatives. “He’s a teacher. He explains things slowly, very slowly. He doesn’t give you a specific direction. He doesn’t tell you ‘This is how you do it.’ He’s wiser than that. He’ll tell you a story and you’re listening, wondering where’s he going. And then he says ‘Do you understand?’ And most of the time you do. He’s getting us to discover things on our own.”

Over the years Zacek has staged many plays about and often by African-Americans. (Three of the resident playwrights–Smith, Clunie, and Steve Carter–are black.) “I can give you a number of reasons for why we do so many African-American plays,” says Zacek. “I believe we need to be inclusive and multicultural. But basically, we do these plays because I dig them. I really like them. I feel very comfortable within the black community. I like the music and the culture and I think the reason is that it’s very open. I don’t think you can find a community more open than the black community. The door is not locked, it’s wide open. All you have to do is go in and be a good person, a mensch.”

Victory Gardens has also featured many plays about Jews. Indeed, the professor Zacek plays in Immoral Imperatives is Jewish. “I’m an honorary Jew, that’s what all my Jewish friends tell me,” says Zacek. “Our big stage theater is named for Sam Burstein. Until he died a few years ago, Sam was a key member of our board. He was also a very good friend of mine. He would always say to me, ‘Denny, Denny, Denny, I keep telling you–dress British and think Yiddish.'”

The company McVay and Zacek manage is now a $1.9-million-a-year operation. They own the building on Lincoln, which has four separate stages, and have an option to buy the Biograph that they’ll exercise if they can raise the capital needed to finance a massive renovation. McVay says they have almost 5,000 annual subscribers, and over 90 percent of their seats are sold throughout the season.

“We’re very hands-on, very personal,” says McVay. “People say, ‘How do you build a theater company?’ and it starts with the body of work. But there’s also a lot of personal talking to people, knowing the customer, standing in the lobby, greeting people, shaking hands. We’re very intimate. We’ve done so many coffee parties where Dennis or [associate artistic director] Sandy [Shinner] will take some actors and do a reading and then they talk about subscriptions or donations. You keep it small, you keep it real.”

Over the years, they’ve increasingly brought in headliners like Julie Harris and Jon Cryer. But basically they remain committed to local talent. A year or so ago there was a move by some board members to restructure Victory Gardens’ operations and redefine its mission. The plan was to relocate to the upscale Royal George Theatre, import celebrity playwrights as well as stars, and install an executive director above Zacek and McVay. When word got out, hundreds of actors, subscribers, and donors protested with E-mails and phone calls. The board members backed down.

“I think the secret of their success is that they are all about community,” says Moser. “Dennis has never lost touch with that true value. He once told me that inclusion is the necessary business for theater. That’s their core value.”

Jeffrey Sweet, who was raised in Evanston, has set Immoral Imperatives in Florida, where Hank and his wife Liz have retired. According to Zacek, he wasn’t director Calvin MacLean’s first choice for the role. “Two other actors had turned it down,” says Zacek. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. Of course, I love acting. But it’s been a while. I was last onstage in 1995. I had reservations. I don’t like to take a job away from another actor. And very frankly, I don’t like to put myself on the line. It’s not only exposing myself to criticism. It’s that I also have the theater to take care of. Obviously, being in the play takes a lot of time and energy.

“Everyone tells me that I’m Hank, but I don’t know. I like to think it’s great acting. I’m obviously not a retired Jewish professor. In many ways I remain what I’ve always been, a kid from the southwest side. Did you know that Marci and I live on the very same block on which I was raised? It’s a lovely turn-of-the-century graystone. When I was a kid it was inhabited by two eccentric sisters. I used to think it was the haunted house of the neighborhood. My mother, she’s 91, still lives across the street in our own family home. I’m all Chicago–born and raised–and this is where I shall stay.”

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