Around this time of year, more than one hundred years ago, the destructive, merciless Great Fire swept through our city’s streets. Legend says that on October 8, 1871, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern and started the blaze but we now know that the fire’s origins are unclear and that an intrepid report made up the O’Leary story, thinking it made his report more colorful (Poor Mrs. O’Leary!). However it began, over 300 people are reported to have died, and more than 100,000 Chicagoans were left homeless.
The Lookingglass Theater’s latest production – “The Great Fire” – offers the perfect chance for families to explore the tragedy that led to the rebirth of our city. Hugely entertaining, it explores the myths surrounding the fire, following several Chicagoans as they struggle to survive both before and as the fire enflames their city. Writer and Director (and ensemble member) John Musial has weaved together and reinterpreted actual accounts, one of them from Charles Anthony (the inspiration for the characters Arthur and Frenchy), the son of a Chicago Judge who recalled his memories of the fire that he survived when he was just 15-year-old in a 1919 publication. Anyone living in the city will appreciate the antics of 7th and 8th ward (today’s Pilsen) alderman James Henry Hidreth, brought to life by the brilliantly versatile Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Julia Lemus, played by Stephanie Diaz, recalls what this disaster meant to the hundreds of working-class immigrants trying to make a decent living in Chicago at the time.
The fire itself is portrayed by Lindsey Noel Whiting: she’s a nasty, backstabbing, heartless redhead in a white petticoat.
The Chicago Fire is appropriate for kids over age 8. Before you go, familiarize your kids with the basic facts and story behind the fire. I recommend The Great Chicago Fire, by Kay Olsen (available on amazon.com), an engaging interpretation in comic book format. After the show, be sure to visit the Great Chicago Fire exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, where you can even find Julia Lemus’ painting of the fire. The Great Fire, now playing at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theater. For tickets, call 312-337-0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.org
Amy Bizzarri is a writer, teacher and mom. She blogs at tiramisumom.com