White, Pluess and Sussman brilliantly and with much sensitivity show us the larger lesson in this story. White's script focuses primarily on just four characterstwo passengers, the captain and the celebrity-seeking teenage hero who recovered 48 bodies professional divers missed. It alternates between the story of the disaster on July 24, 1915, and the back-story of fictionalized passengers Bobbie (Claire Wellin) and Ilse (Monica West). Bobbie's family had recently immigrated from Norway. Her father died on the journey to America, leaving the mother, an uncle and daughters to settle in Chicago. Bobbie is a feisty, mildly rebellious teenager who, along with the others, relishes the promise of the outing (in the song "Only a Boat Ride Away"). Ilse takes a job at the factory, but the boredom of the work soon drives her to daydreaming and before long, into marriage to the first man who asks her (Derek Hasenstab). As her marriage grows old, she's tempted by the advances of a handsome grocer (Erik Hellman) who shows interest in her. Their stories are simple enough, yet White's charactersdrawn with great detail, and acted empathetically under Amanda Dehnert's directionwin us over with their pure humanity. Their lives have been hard, and the deaths of so many passengers like them, under such unexpected and unnecessary circumstances, feel especially tragic.
The full weight of the loss is borne by Captain Harry Pedersen (a tough yet human portrayal by Michael Barrow Smith), who feels responsibility for the tragedy though he probably deserved none. Pedersen was, in fact, later exonerated of wrongdoing in court. The fault lay with the ship's owners, who had changed its purpose from exclusively passenger vessel to one also carrying cargoon that day, a huge load of concrete. The Eastland, poorly designed and top heavy in the first place, was even less water-worthy on the day of the tragedy. The bona fide hero of the day was the 17-year-old Reggie Bowles (Doug Hara), who worships Houdini (appearing on stage in Reggie's imagination) and fancies himself a hero called "the human frog" for his amphibious ability to spend long periods of time under water without breathing.
White manages to tell these stories with complete respect for the victims yet without becoming maudlin or depressing. His nuanced characters have faults and foibles that we can recognize and laugh at, and young Reggie is both admirable for his courage and mildly laughable for his bravado, particularly when mocked by the imaginary Houdini (Hasenstab, playing Houdini for the second time this season) he's trying to impress. There's also a brief but effective bit of comic relief from Lawrence E. DiStasi as undertaker Otto Muchna.
Dehnert's staging executes the perfect tone for the piece, exuding the characters' strength and resilience in the midst of both their daily challenges and the unthinkable disaster. She also delivers some stunning visuals. Her staging evolves from a fairly simple presentational style in the 90-minute musical's early scenes to some quite surreal pictures after tragedy hits. There are acrobatics performed by Hara, simulating Reggie's dives into the murky waters, movement on and above the stage on ramps, and the haunting images of the victims, represented as soaked clothing lifted above the stage on hangers and carrying identifying number tags. The production design includes Mara Blumenfeld's authentic looking costumes that are appropriately as modest as the characters' means, Dan Ostling's representational set, and lighting by Christine A. Binder that suggests both the brightly lit everyday world of the characters and the horrific darkness of the cold Chicago River.
White, Pluess and Sussman have written a musical that is hardly traditional in structure, yet honors traditions of the genre. White's book has long scenes of dialogue and the music includes both traditionally structured songs and musicalized themes. Pluess and Sussman are writing in the spirit of early 20th century folk music and provide some lovely and accessible melodies for White's very fine and poetic lyrics. The score is well-sung by the entire cast and given sprightly accompaniment by eight musicians under the music direction of Malcolm Ruhl. (In John Doyle-ish fashion, the musicians all play roles as well).
White's choice to tell the story through the musical theatre genre gives the tale a mythic quality that feels entirely right and possibly more genuine than would a straight dramatic reading. Above all, the gift and fragility of life comes through in this perfectly concise and emotionally powerful ninety-minute one act musical.
Eastland will be performed through August 19, 2012, at the Lookingglass Theatre, inside the historic Water Tour Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue. For ticket information, visit www.lookingglasstheatre.org, or call the box office at 312-337-0665.