American Buffalo: Remembering Chicago

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I fell in love with Chicago long before I came to Chicago.

It was through Chicago writers like Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg that I discovered its scruff, waste, and growth. It was because of their Chicago that I left everything behind for this city.

2 years ago I saw Chicago, the real Chicago, for the first time. Everything that I imagined so romantically was suddenly replaced by clean counters, glass doors, shiny cars and shiny tall buildings. Living here over time, I've forgotten the sadness that I felt when my naïve Chicago first started fall away. But that Chicago of mine, of Algren and Sandburg, was the very Chicago that came back to me Wednesday night from the stage of American Buffalo.

I've seen Steppenwolf productions before, but never on Chicago's Lincoln Park stage. The set was thoughtful and intricate, as conscious of the play as the actors themselves. Cluttered like your favorite junkshop with props from the Steppenwolf closet, the cashier read $5.20 and wooden chairs hung from the ceiling.

While the visual atmosphere was one of browsing and lingering, the dialog was light, crude, comic and fast-paced. The actors carried the audience quickly through subtexts of emotion, hinting at remorse for a city that was showing signs of change. Don, the aged and struggling owner of the junkshop, constantly watches over Bobby, the kid that loves him. Teach, their flashy poker friend, is frustrated and crude from always losing. These three were the only three we saw, the only actors on the stage. Each acting off the other, they stirred in us a certain timidity and fear. Afraid to be alone, afraid of change and new things, we all felt together as though our lovely shop of pastimes was threatened by the ruthlessly coming world outside.

Pushed by their surroundings to reveal their honest selves, Don and Teach worked themselves into a chaos, culminating with Teach ripping the calm, nostalgic, hovering atmosphere apart and supplanting their own atmosphere of anger, fear, and loneliness. It was in this state that Bobby, the kid that never did anything wrong and tried so hard to do things right, was the only one to say "I'm sorry."

And suddenly the play ended.

In the after-show discussion with assistant director Jamie Abelson, the audience members voiced their praise and their inquiries as well as their obvious love of Chicago. As Steppenwolf staff quietly put our favorite junkshop back together, we spoke of the Chicago World's Fair, the pigsticker, the accents and regional colloquialism.

We were Chicagoans and Americans, teenage, middle-age, and over-age, but all the same there was a strong sense of Chicago in the air. Together we revived our nostalgia for the same Chicago that I once fell in love with, that Teach violently missed and Don carefully watched over... that all of Chicago remembers.

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