A scene from Heat Wave, which runs through April 6th at Truman College’s O’Rourke Center

It could have been due to the snow—or perhaps the subject matter—but the audience at last night’s Heat Wave opening was a little … sparse, which is sad and a little ironic. In July of 1995, our city failed to take responsibility for more than 700 heat-related deaths. It was a complete societal breakdown where everyone (the City of Chicago, the media, and civilians) was accountable for one of the worst meteorological disasters in the history of the United States. It’s a story worth remembering. So, why all the empty chairs? Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of our follies? Or perhaps we weren’t even aware of them? Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s neither.

Adapting a somewhat dense, sociological manifesto is not an easy task, but playwright Steven Simoncic makes a valiant effort. His play honors the essence of Eric Klinenberg’s book, that sense of universal responsibility. But there are also weaknesses in the production that take away from the emotional value of the material. Heat Wave jumps around different settings, attempting to give a full scope of the events that happened that summer: Here is the morgue filling upwith the forgotten; here is a newspaper room struggling to make the right editorial decision; here is the mayor’s office worrying about what to tell the public; here is a sweltering apartment consuming an ailing tenant. All of these story lines are crucial elements in Klinenberg’s book, but this mass of information can be tough to translate to the stage. With this take, some scenes stretch on a little too long and some try to say a little too much. It becomes is a fine line between stunning the audience with an almost unbelievable fact and beating them over the head with it. 

But, full disclosure: I have a genuine soft spot for Heat Wave, especially Klinenberg’s book. It’s one of those books that give you a deeper understanding of the city in which we live. It conveys frustration and sympathy without a whole lot of bias, which is tough to find. So, the admiration I have for Simoncic’s undertaking is vast. He was able to convert some very weighty material and make it into a play that stays true to its message—and even managed to throw in a few genuine laughs. In one of the final scenes, there are two newscasters speaking in unison. They are reporting from the site of a mass burial of 41 heat wave victims. It’s sensational. It’s front-page news. It could have been prevented, had the media done their job in the first place. It makes you think. And for that reason, it seems worth it to try to fill some of those empty seats.

Heat Wave runs through April 6th. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. $15-$25, discounts available. Produced by Live Bait Theater and Pegasus Players at O’Rourke Center, Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Ave.; 773-878-9761.


Photography: Jennifer Girard