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Theater Review:

"THEY ALL FALL DOWN: THE RICHARD NICKEL STORY," Lookingglass Theatre Company at the Ruth Page Arts Center


Richard Nickel had no formal training in photography, architecture or writing. Yet his name is most closely associated with Chicago’s historic building preservation and documentation. Born in 1928, Nickel – an introverted man who suffered emotional problems after serving in the Korean War – was an unlikely candidate to set the whole landmark preservation movement into motion. But it is Nickel’s quietly agitated yet immovable commitment Lookingglass Theatre Company brings to light in its world-premiere production, "They All Fall Down: The Richard Nickel Story," at the appropriately history-ensconced Ruth Page Arts Center.

Laura Eason and Jessica Thebus have adapted Richard Cahan’s book, "They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture," with a smoky poetic grace – deftly navigating this soft-spoken hero’s belief in the soul-enriching power of aesthetically crafted buildings.

Lookingglass follows an evocative approach similar to its previous staging of Chicago author Nelson Algren’s humanity-centered writings. A charcoal-hued stage draped in scaffolding gradually reveals the bones and sinews of architectural masterpieces, most of which were reduced to rubble during the City of Chicago’s building redevelopment campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. At a time when Americans are intensely conscious of city-defining architectural treasures, Nickel’s story takes on a fierce new life.

Algren, an impassioned writer interested in telling the stories of people who occupied buildings, served as an ideal predecessor to Lookingglass’ exploration of Nickel, an equally fervent man who wanted posterity to remember that an empowering edifice is created by visionary people.

Thebus directs this mesmerizing, humorous and enlightening production with a glorious minimalist intricacy. One wishes it could continue weaving its inspiring spell for more than its 90-minute running time. Apart from an overly stylized deification of architect Louis Sullivan, whom Nickel worships, "They All Fall Down" tackles the complex issues surrounding building preservation while tracking the evolution of one determined individual to remind us of Chicago’s exceptionally rich architectural legacy.

Larry Neumann, Jr., one of the city’s most transcendent actors, encompasses Nickel’s nervously stoic honoring of his almost divine calling. We first meet him frenetically brushing his teeth before heading out to his photography class at Chicago’s Institute of Design, where he first becomes enamored with Louis Sullivan’s integration of exquisite natural elements into his designs of the Auditorium, Garrick Theatre, Meyer Building and Chicago Stock Exchange. The latter building marked the place where Nickel would die in 1972 during a floor collapse while he was salvaging fragments of its bricks and mortar slated for destruction.

Two scenes stand out for their sumptuous visual suggestion and emotional vigor: Neumann’s intrepid Nickel scouring the arched bowels of the Garrick Theatre against a faint opera aria and performers in 1920s Orientalia garb enacting an exotic "Sheik"-like scene in the misty distance; and Nickel and Thomas J. Cox’s impish but unwavering Sullivan playing chess with miniature building models.

A substantial cast in multiple roles (particularly Julia Neary and Carolyn Defrin) adroitly merge the poetry of human life with that of its edifying structures. Special accolades go to the endlessly imaginative design team of John Musial (sets and films), Michelle Habeck (lighting), Andre Pluess and Josh Horvath (sound), Michael Brosilow (projections), Sara Puzey (props) and Susan Haas (costumes).

The great joy of this production – and of Nickel’s legacy – is that audiences can forever revel in Chicago’s skyline and abundant architectural heritage with newfound vitality and intense scrutiny. Our city’s buildings and inhabitants breathe as one inseparable – and inextinguishable -- entity.•

Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of "They All Fall Down: The Richard Nickel Story" has been extended through December 2 at the Ruth Page Arts Center, 1016 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $28.50-$33.50. Call 773-477-8088.

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