‘My Kind of Town’ takes theatrical look at Chicago’s brutal police scandal
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org May 9, 2012 5:06PM
John Conroy on the set of the world premiere of his play "My Kind of Town" at TimeLine Theatre.
◆ In previews; opens tonight and runs through July 29
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John Conroy would be the first to admit that for more than two decades he has been a man in the throes of a serious obsession.
The object of his obsession is what is referred to in shorthand terms as Chicago’s “police torture scandal” — a complex and long-running pattern of behavior that resulted in numerous investigations and court cases, the imprisonment (related to perjury and obstruction of justice rather than torture charges) of veteran police commander Jon Burge, many millions of dollars in legal costs and payout of damages by the city, and the call for a deposition (still to take place) by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Cook County state’s attorney at the time of many of the alleged incidents of torture of prisoners.
Over the course of 11 years, beginning in 1990, Conroy wrote 22 stories for The Reader (with his final “reward” being that he was “laid off” when that publication ran into financial difficulties). And much of that prize-winning coverage — which began with a 20,000-word expose titled “House of Screams” — eventually found its way into a more wide-ranging book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, published by Knopf in 2000.
But for the past five years, Conroy, 60 — a widely published journalist who was born in Chicago, graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and lived in (and wrote about) West Belfast during a period of “The Troubles” — has focused his attention on turning his obsession into a work of theater. The result, his first play, bears the deceptively jaunty title, “My Kind of Town.” It receives its world premiere May 11 at TimeLine Theatre in a production directed by Nick Bowling, who did such a dazzling job with “The History Boys.”
Conroy is very clear that his play (developed over several years with assistance from Steppenwolf Theatre, Northwestern University’s School of Law, the 16th Street Theatre, Writer’s Bloc and film director John Hancock), is “not a docudrama.”
“I took bits and pieces from my research, and then made up some things for dramatic reasons,” said the writer, a tall, lean, gaunt-faced man with a surprisingly easy sense of humor and a deep admiration for the work actors do. “I didn’t want the play to be dismissed as a particular indictment of Chicago. What is described could happen in Los Angeles or Boston or New York or Philadelphia or beyond. It is applicable in many places. And there is no Burge character in the play now, although there used to be, though there are versions of some of his rationalizing speeches.”
Asked to set the temper of the times in Chicago, when the case that would eventually grab his journalistic attention (a civil suit brought to court in 1989 by convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson) was first unfolding, Conroy explained: “The year was 1982. Jane Byrne was mayor. And Jon Burge was commander of the detective squad of what was then Police Area 2, a neighborhood that stretched roughly from 51st Street south to the border of the city, and far into the west side.”
“Wilson was accused (and later convicted) of shooting and killing two police officers — William Fahey and Richard O’Brien — on Feb. 9, 1982. There is no question about the crime, and about the great horror over the double execution of these two officers which had been preceded very closely by three other shootings of police officers. Wilson was at large for five days. Mayor Byrne went on television to offer a reward for his capture. The media followed the funeral corteges for the men, which drew hundreds of police officers. And because Burge was the head of the violent crimes unit in Area 2, all these cases landed on his desk.”
In 1988, a year before Wilson would bring his civil suit alleging that he had been subjected to electric shock, and was held against a burning radiator (something Conroy believes was inadvertent), Conroy had been contacted by Ann Close, a Knopf editor who admired his first book, Belfast Diary. Ironically enough, she wanted him to think about writing a book on the subject of torture.
“So I started looking into the idea — the whole notion of how ordinary people could become torturers,” said Conroy. “And I began to want to try to explain the phenomenon of torture.”
Then a friend tipped him to Wilson’s upcoming case alleging torture. He attended the six-week trial, saw the photographs submitted as evidence, became a believer and started writing.
“Torture is done by people like you and me,” said Conroy. “Once it starts it is hard to stop it. And the class of those who are ‘torturable’ enlarges. Initially it is done to someone who has harmed police officers, but then it spreads. And what do you say about those innocent people who are tortured for information or forced to confess? And yes, cops have heavy case loads, the crimes are horrible, and everybody wants results.”
For Conroy, the important thing is “that the audience decides how they feel about all this. No matter how heinous the crime or dangerous the situation, is torture ever justifiable?”
As for his theatrical influences, Conroy cites two plays as leaving the greatest impression on him — Ron Hutchinson’s “Rat in the Skull” (staged decades ago at the long-defunct Wisdom Bridge Theatre, in which Brian Dennehy made his Chicago stage debut, alongside Jim True Frost), and a production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.”
“The most important thing I’ve learned in this whole process is that unlike with journalism, you can’t have a whole lot of exposition,” said Conroy. “All the tension in theater is in the back and forth.”