The torturer next door: John Conroy's My Kind of Town
Twenty years ago, in his first Reader article on the Area Two police torture allegations, John Conroy wondered whether “the behavior of the police was consistent with that of torturers, or if the city itself resembled the sort of society where torture might take place.”
The question returned on Monday night, when Conroy’s play My Kind of Town received a staged reading at the Theatre Building as part of the Writers Bloc festival of new plays.
Conroy introduced his play by pointedly describing it as a work of fiction, with the familiar disclaimer that any resemblance to actual persons or events was coincidental. Be that as it may, the intertwined stories that make up My Kind of Town will have strong resonances for anyone who followed Conroy’s reporting. A state’s attorney rises through the ranks, trying to repress her knowledge of systematic brutality. A couple struggles with the unjust conviction of their son, a death row prisoner. A cop publicly defies reports of illegal interrogation practices, while privately his family comes to terms with what he’s done. In the spaces between the interwoven stories, a prisoner convicted through his torture-driven confession marks the passage of time by tearing years from a calendar; at the play’s end, he’s still there, confronting the audience with a stony glare.
Conroy and director Thomas Weitz recruited a stellar cast for this performance. Ora Jones took the night off from her Margaret Dumont act at the Goodman to lend a complex humanity to the part of Rita Jeffries, the mother of the death row prisoner, while James T. Alfred, currently tearing up the Court Theatre stage as Levee in Ma Rainey, delivered a pivotal monologue, describing in ferocious detail what went on in the interrogation rooms. Perhaps the most arresting moment of the piece was the combative speech delivered by A Red Orchid’s Danny McCarthy as Jack Gunther, the police commander bearing a coincidental resemblance to Jon Burge, unapologetically defending the torturers’ actions.
As that moment might suggest, Conroy avoids easy answers in the play, which humanizes the officers of Area Two even as it casts a wide net of responsibility for the scale and duration of the torture. The play ends with us wondering whether state’s attorney Maureen Buckley (Wendi Weber) will reveal what she knows in court; in a post-show Q&A, Conroy remarked, “I wanted everyone in the audience to wait for someone to finally tell the truth.”
The complexity of My Kind of Town led to a lively discussion, abetted by the connection many audience members bore to the events. One woman, who had carried out psychiatric evaluations of prisoners, noted that Conroy’s play, in its depiction of the effects of torture on victims and families, accurately showed that “sometimes when you break something, it can’t be fixed.” Visiting from Oregon was former Chicago special prosecutor Jeff Kent, who left the city in 1985 frustrated with pervasive corruption; Kent praised Conroy’s writing for its “beautiful ambiguity,” showing how each character rationalized his or her conduct, and noted that “there are few profiles in courage” surrounding the story.
Conroy himself could be counted as one of the few. His play still has some rough spots, but it delivers a passionate and thoughtful indictment of the culture that enabled these abuses. He noted that Monday could easily be the last time it’s seen on a stage, a point that drew a collective groan from the theater. He's a savvy guy, but let’s hope he gets proved wrong about that.