The Great Fire Review -The Chicago Fire Story Retold 140 Years Later

The Lookingglass Theatre has recreated John Musial’s 1997 play, The Great Fire, about the infamous Chicago Fire of October 8. 1971. As many readers will know, 140 years ago the Great Chicago Fire consumed four square miles of the southwest side of “the Windy City” – killing hundreds of people and destroying over 17,000 buildings and homes.

Chicago had been experiencing one of the hottest, driest autumns on record until a strong wind blew up a small blaze to dastardly, chaotic proportions.

No one in the city was prepared for this inferno.  The play’s intricate personal stories are revealed through the hearts and minds of the city’s politicians, residents, firemen, aldermen, orphans and O’Learys. Some actors play multiple characters quite believably.

I half-expected to see and feel the heat and blazing of an actual fire, but, in reality, there was no possible way to portray one in its full magnitude.  Instead, using the historical events and the emotional storytelling enacted by each of the actors, (taken from actual letters, diaries and newspapers collected by the Chicago Historical Society), the audience watches the ensemble deal with and attempt to defy the burning of the city.

The actors are all excellent and believable in their roles.Lindsey Noel Whiting, dressed in a white Victorian dress resting on her brilliantly dramatic red hair, represents the blaze. Her initial innocence onstage rapidly transforms her into an escalating fire – from dancing exquisite ballet into sky leaps raging continuously amidst her innocent and battered victims. 


The Lake is the escape route many citizens take.

There is Mayor Roswell Mason, (Thomas J. Cox)  Judge Lambert Tree (Troy West), and Alderman Hildreth (Cheryl Lynn Bruce). (Among the other memorable characters are Tree family servant Kevin Douglas), and the doomed John Tolland  (also played by Cox), the watchman of the offshore wooden filter of the city’s water supply. And there is recent Polish immigrant and newly widowed lithographer Julia Lemos (Stephanie Diaz), whose livelihood goes up in smoke, along with the rest of her part of the city.

Ironically, The Great Fire plays on the site of the Water Tower pumping station, one of the very few buildings in the area to survive the fire.

John Musial (playwright, director); John Dalton (scenic); Allison Siple* (costumes); Mike Durst (lighting); Josh Horvath* and Ray Nardelli* (sound); Eric Huffman (original music); Joel Lambie (props); Kathleen E. Petroziello (stage manager).

The Great Fire continues through November 20 at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Avenue. Performances are on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 PM; 3 PM on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $30-$68 and can be purchased on telephone at 312-337-0665 or online at Check for half-price tickets at

Photos: Sean Williams


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