I Sailed With Magellan

Michael Nagrant / 06.08.07

Three or four years I ago I’d been those kids, I thought, as I watched college students and young professional’s stumble out of the Gin Mill and the Red Lion Pub on Lincoln Ave. on a Wednesday night. On my way to see Victory Gardens’ production of I sailed with Magellan, an adaptation of Stuart Dybek’s short story collection fictionalizing the 1950s Chicago of his youth, I realized that as one of these kids I’d probably be four Maker’s Mark and Cokes in to the night already. It’s not that I wasn’t cultured, but when you’re in your early twenties, plays are for weekend afternoons, and drinking with your friends is for anytime.

Now, a few years removed from all that, many friends are married, starting to have children, me included, and with that, some are contemplating moves from the city. I didn’t grow up here, but I’ve been here for seven years, and I love this city as if I’d been born here. Like an urban Charlton Heston, I’d joked, you’ll have to pry this city from my cold dead hands. Not so for many of my friends, who with newborns, now indulged a wanderlust for lush backyards and homes of their own.

For some reason, condos no longer do, and unless you’re wealthy, affordable Chicago single family homes in nice neighborhoods seem untouchable. One of my greatest friends, an unapologetic urbanite and his wife, the guy who’d introduced me to bourbon and coke, had spoken of a potential move. Normally, I’d been floored, but I’d kind of understood, even acted complicitly, giving advice about my short stint living in Oak Park when I first moved here.

Then tonight, this play changed things.

I’m not sure I Sailed with Magellan was the best production I’ve seen all year, but it was by far the most riveting, inspiring, and entertaining one I’ve seen. The play celebrates Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and its band of characters: former Mexican luchadors, mafia stiffs, war veteran bartenders, as well as the coming of age of Perry Katzek and the escapades of his blue collar family, including his eclectic Uncle Lefty. If the axiom about good ensemble pieces is that they are a rich tapestry, then this adaptation by Claudia Allen, is the fruit of the loom.

As a lover of Chicago, you eventually study its history. Even if you’d never been here to experience it, a true lover of this city laments the classic days of Maxwell St., the numbing years of middling play that generated a fraternity of shared mediocrity among Cubbies and the Sox fans, and even the bumbling and brilliant dictatorship of Richard J. Daley. Now, you no longer have to wonder what things were really like. Go see this play and the low moan of the L will rumble through your heart, the Maxwell St. Barkers will buzz in your ears, and the blue collar shoulders upon which we all now stand will tense up before your very eyes.

It’s horrible I know, but honestly I’ve gotten so bored with most of the theatre I’ve been reviewing lately, that I usually while away the time analyzing performances, set design etc., but I was so engaged by this production, and the magic of resurrecting Little Village through Dybek’s rich writing, I didn’t have much time for deconstruction. Performances were generally all good, especially Lance Baker’s gadabout Uncle Lefty, and the rough edged and clueless, though entertaining father played by Marc Grapey. Set design, especially the video montages including footage of old Maxwell Street, was excellent

Ultimately, as I left the theatre and drove down Lincoln, and then Halsted, watching the drunken kids, I’d realize that while I was in a new chapter of my Chicago life, it didn’t mean I wasn’t part of the city. The play had rekindled my passion, reinforcing that I’d been too complacent when my friends spoke of moving out of the city. Nothing against Oak Park, Naperville, etc., but they just don’t have the wealth of great old man dive corner bars, late night hot dogs at Jim’s Original, blown out bop and breathy jazz at the Green Mill, the spectacular fountains at Millenium Park, and The Bean, for god sakes.

Hell, I’d just been watching a play where John Dillinger had been shot. Grass is nice, but Grant Park is my backyard. I hope that living amidst this richness is enough to compel my friends to stay, but even if they don’t, I can say after being reminded of my love for Chicago through this play, you’ll still have to pry this city out of my cold dead hands.

I Sailed with Magellan runs through July 15 at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets can be purchased by calling 773-871-3000.

This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com