Testing their limits

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By Doug Deuchler

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The first production of the 10th season at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn plunges the audience into an intense, powerful morality play.

Jon Steinhagen's Blizzard '67 is a fascinating, fast-paced, dark comedy. Four men in a carpool, cogs in the corporate machine, get caught in the legendary snowstorm as they attempt to get home from their Loop office. With steady direction by Ann Filmer, this engaging exploration of four male characters is vividly portrayed by a solid ensemble. 

Each of these white-collar office stiffs brings to mind the guys in Mad Men in terms of their era yet they have a particular Chicago modus operandi. Real "Mad Men" would not be carpooling, for starters. These guys are competitive and explosive yet they are also bored, tired, and unfulfilled.

Stephen Spencer plays a carefree, smug individual — the most successful of the four — who always occupies the "shotgun" front seat. He's also the only one who is not married. He flaunts his new purchase, a 1967 Chevy Caprice, after receiving a big promotion. Does he deserve it? His rival carpool associates don't think so.

Mark Pracht plays a problem drinker in a challenging marriage, who is driving the group in his clunky '63 Ford Falcon (with a broken horn and radio) on the day of the big snowstorm.

At times either morose or funny, the nerdy, quirky guy with a kid at home is portrayed by Noah Simon.

The youngest of the group, played by Christian Stokes, is also the most immature.

Spencer additionally plays several minor characters.

The big blizzard dumped 27 hours of steadily falling snow on the city and suburbs, accumulating to a depth of nearly two feet. The guys' company offers to put the four men up at the Allerton Hotel, all sharing one room, but they turn it down. They decide to take their chances and head west in the Falcon. As they attempt to make it toward the suburbs, they cannot even decipher street signs because of the intensity of the storm. Most streets are also already choked with abandoned cars and buses. 

This is an insightful, at times explosive, character study, reminiscent of those old World War II bombardier pictures where the men-at-war argue non-stop, often hilariously, but eventually put aside their jealousies and rivalries. This well-crafted play about male fellowship would make a brilliant movie.

Jon Steinhagen's a multitalented treasure — a pianist, composer, actor, and playwright. He is currently 16th Street Theater's resident playwright. His dialogue is gritty, often funny, and always quite real. He accurately captures the "voice" of non-communicative guy talk. These four men spend a lot of time together in the car every day yet they barely seem to know one another. They are not really friends. They certainly never share their ambitions and insecurities.

Folks who remember the '67 blizzard often have vivid stories. If you lived through it, the play will jog your memory.

Tony Churchill has created an amazing projection design of still photos, TV news footage, and blizzard scenes.

There was a TV show when I was a kid called You Are There, narrated by Walter Cronkite, where every Sunday you were thrust into a particular historical event like the Great Chicago Fire or the Louisiana Purchase. Steinhagen has created a similar situational drama based on significant research and interviews, which clearly depicts an era when some men still put chains on their tires in bad weather and nobody had cellphones. At times individual characters will briefly step out of the story to narrate the events unfolding in their lives.

The play takes about 20 minutes to establish the relationships of the carpool guys before the storm hits. The entire two-act piece lasts about 95 minutes with one intermission.

Blizzard '67 offers strong writing, intense direction, and solid performances. The initial preview run was so successful that the show has already gone into extension through March 4. 

Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. at 16th St. Theater, 6420 16th Street in Berwyn. Tickets at www.16thstreettheater.org.

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