Walkabout Theater puts Dybek's Coast on the stage
Why did we have to see this together?" the Gold Coast Woman asks the Narrator as they watch the sun come up over Chicago. There is a pause. Watching from the side, Gary Zabinski, director of Walkabout Theater's upcoming show The Coast ofChicago, realizes this pivotal line is not coming out quite right.
"Why is she asking this?" he asks Laura Eason, the show's playwright. The two are observing the action in a rehearsal space, in preparation for this week's opening. Eason explains that the woman recognizes a crucial moment in their relationship, one that could make this sunrise either a sign of happiness to come or a bitter disappointment. The actor runs the line again, now with the right touch of ambivalence.
It's always helpful to have the playwright on hand in rehearsal, but in this case, Eason is as much interpreter as author. The line comes from Stuart Dybek's story "Nighthawks," one of several that Eason has adapted for thisWalkabout production.
Adaptation is a process Eason knows quite a bit about: Theformer artistic director for Lookingglass has adapted juggernauts The Master and Margarita and A Tale of Two Cities.
"The question was, What is the glue holding things together and what does it all add up to?" Eason says. Answering that question has been the most collaborative aspect of the production. Extensive research, including a reenactment of the smelt fishing trip described in the story "Hot Ice," helped give members a vibrant sense forDybek's Chicago. Throughoutthe process, Eason drew on the lesson she learned from her teacher, Steppenwolf's Frank Galati, who's no slouch in the adaptation business: "To be most true does not always mean being faithful—too literal a translation can miss the truth. The goal is to preserve the life and experience depicted bythe text."
In the case of Coast, life and experience have a fascinating duality. On the one hand, Dybek is rightly renowned for his realistic evocations of life on Chicago's South Side: its linguistic gumbo, its abundance of churches and bars, its remnants of older ways of life juxtaposed with the wreckage of modern urban renewal.
On the other hand, Dybek's writing also contains strong elements of mystery that are often overlooked. Dybek has described himself as a writer less interested in Chicago per se than in the moments of extraordinary perception that the city can create. Momentary visions like the girl encased in ice in "Hot Ice" or the silence sinuously pervading an apartment building at the close of "Chopin in Winter" suggest a dimension of life, in Chicago and elsewhere, that resists our ordinary understanding of the world. The work hints at the extraordinary depths a single building or family can conceal.
This twin commitment to realism and revelation makes Dybek well suited to Walkabout, a company whose site-specific work (like last spring's Psycho-So-Matic, set in a laundromat) also seeks to make the everyday sublime. Together with the author, a trio of actors performed a section of the story "Hot Ice" at Steppenwolf onDecember 15. Their rich and assured impersonations of this story's striking personalities—the altar boy Pancho, his skeptical brother Manny and the distanced observer Eddie—suggest that Walkabout will convey the powerful atmosphere of Dybek's collection. At the same time, the play places an emphasis on community that remains relatively implicit within the stories as written.
To Dybek, the new emphasis came as a welcome revelation about his book. "I was open to seeing the production as a reimagining," he says. "For me, it brings out a sense of community that I didn't get around to writing about consciously until I Sailed with Magellan," Dybek says, referring to his 2003 story collection. While Zabinski assured his cast that the tone of the production will remain "not at all Our Town–y," the layers in Eason's script and the interactions between cast members nevertheless keep the sometimes alienated characters of Dybek's stories woven into an elaborate background of Chicago life.
Coast of Chicago opens Sunday 15 and runs through February 19 at Lookingglass Theatre.