Talking to Myself | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Talking to Myself 

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Northlight Theatre

Talking to Myself, Northlight Theatre's staged "story theater" version of Studs Terkel's memoir, has--like the book--a sweet poignancy. A boy discovers the world around him, and that discovery helps mold the man. It's an old story, a classic, maybe even an archetype. But when a story is so well known, retelling it requires a little something extra--an exaggeration, a twist, a surprise, something to keep it fresh and vital and make it important enough to be heard one more time.

In this Northlight production, the acting ensemble is superb. The staging is stark but effective. The graphics are riveting. And the way the music weaves through the script is as magical and unobtrusive as a dream. Yet, despite its complex and often fascinating subject--Terkel himself--Talking to Myself is remarkably lightweight. After two acts and nearly 90 minutes of theater, this exercise in nostalgia seems a little too familiar.

We have to ask: Are we interested because the stories are really interesting? Or are we interested out of a certain civic loyalty? In Talking to Myself, Terkel tells us his life while evoking west-side jazz clubs, the Bughouse Square debates, gangsters, election chicanery, union organizing--the whole Chicago iconography. His command of Chicagoese--both the lexicon and the culture--is masterful, but then, he's practically Chicago personified, isn't he?

It may be just a coincidence, but Talking to Myself did premiere in Evanston, close enough to the action to know some of the detail but far enough away to romanticize it. The Chicagoan might wonder what the purpose of this production is, since it shows us nothing new. And a stranger might find it just as mysterious--without some knowledge of the local folklore, the script's as light and precious as a soap bubble.

The stranger might wonder, too, who the hell Studs Terkel is and why we should care: Talking to Myself assumes its audience knows our town's favorite raconteur. This is conceit, of course, unless this script is to remain forever local. Keep in mind that the New York Daily News, recently describing Terkel's appearance in the film Eight Men Out, innocently called him "a former newspaperman"--one of the few professions Studs has not practiced. Like that outsider's description of him, the staged version of Talking doesn't do much justice to Terkel, the real-life man. He's never this sticky-sweet.

Talking to Myself starts well enough, introducing us to Studs, his brother, the hotel at Grand and Wells run by his mother. We become familiar with his delight at the characters who haunted the steps of the Newberry Library, the simple fraud that ensnared even him during elections, the sudden realization of injustice when the little guys, not the ward bosses, got sent off to jail over political lawbreaking. These are all elements that shaped the young Studs--and his love for his fellowman, perhaps exemplified when he exclaims, "There was room at our inn for everybody!"

But the vignette about his early radio work is surprisingly jarring, doesn't fit with the rest of the play, and the sudden turning back of the clock at the end is inexplicable. The epilogue, with its studied symbolism, tries too hard to bring it all together, and it does what Studs would never do: it underestimates the audience and hits us over the head with meaning.

In a line somewhere near the middle of the play, the young Studs refers to Nelson Algren. The allusion is somewhat out of place, but it reveals the play's aspirations. Unfortunately, although Terkel himself understands the grit and substance of Algren's work, the stage version of Talking to Myself has nothing of Algren's dark side. The reference then becomes gratuitous, and maybe cynically perfect, a cheap aside, for a suburban audience.

Talking to Myself is adapted from the book and directed by Paul Sills, the originator of story theater, an involving, intimate method of presentation in which the actors step in and out of their characters, narrating the tale as well as their thoughts and feelings at the same time that they act them out. Sills's direction here is excellent; our attention doesn't waver.

Eddie Jemison plays a wonderful young Terkel, earnest and winning. The only problem is that he lacks the gravel throat that won the real-life man his radio roles as a villain. Dennis Cockrum, who plays a slew of characters, is terrific--he gives every one a particular feel and tone so convincing that it's easy to forget it's the same actor over and over again. Joann Shapiro and Warren Leming also deliver standout turns.

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