By Abdon M. Pallasch, Contributor
April / May 2007
Mayor Richard J. Daley is back among us – live on the Chicago stage
It’s him. The legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, in the opening scene, kneeling to take morning communion as the priest says with a slight Irish accent, “The Lard be with you.”
Daley, his hair slicked back, his jowls motionless, solemnly in responds in Bridgeportese along with his minions standing behind him: “An also which-oo.’”
The national press is flocking to the big downtown musical production of the Broadway-bound Pirate Queen, but the surprise hit Hizzoner about more recent Irish-American history keeps getting its run extended at the small Prop Theater on Chicago’s northwest side.
Neil Giuntoli, an actor and writer who appeared in The Shawshank Redemption, Memphis Belle, Seinfeld, Ally McBeal, and CSI among other movies and television shows “channels” – that’s the only word for it — the late mayor to the point that the audience really believes he is back standing among them, ordering police to “shoot to kill” arsonists after Martin Luther King’s assassination; vowing not to let hippies disrupt the ‘68 Democratic convention. Sun-Times Theater critic Hedy Weiss and columnist Mike Royko’s widow Judy both used the word “channeling” after seeing the play.
Giuntoli is a product of Chicago and a great-nephew of Mayor wAnton Cermak, a Bohemian-American political genius who assembled the machine of ethnic voters that allowed Daley to spend 21 years in power. After only two years in office, Cermak was killed by a bullet meant for Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the two rode in a car together in Miami in 1933. (On Feb. 28, Daley’s son Richard M. will in all likliehood be re-elected to a term that will see him eclipse his father’s 21 years in office.)
But a play about Cermak? Who’d come to see it? Instead, Giuntoli wrote about the mayor he grew up with. And while he lays bare all Daley’s faults, it’s clear he has a reverence for the autocrat who never moved out of his modest bungalow and who clearly loved HIS city.
He appears on the verge of tears as his aides present with a model of the John Hancock Building, which would precede the Sears Tower as the city’s tallest.
Beaming and choking on his words, Daley says this is the kind of world-class development he wants to put Chicago on the map.
“Not bad for a cupla Irish kids from Bridgeport, eh?” he chuckles to his aide Matt Danaher. They all smile as the lights fade and he says, “Yeah, I can feel it: 1968 is going to be a great year for Chicago!”
Daley offers unapologetic deathbed defenses of his handling of the riots. He appears offended when a young theology student named Jesse Jackson balks at what he considers his generous offer of a job as a toll collector on the Chicago Skyway.
Danaher and Daley’s city council floor leader Ald. Tom Keane (Disclosure: Keane was my great-uncle. Actor Whit Spurgeon does a fair job portraying Uncle Tom though it’s not quite channeling) get indicted in federal corruption probes but Daley is never implicated in any schemes.
In interviews over pints after the play at Chief O’Neill’s Pub just across the street from the Prop, and at the Abbey Pub a few doors down, Giuntoli confesses to a real affection for Daley that comes through in the play.
He read the best books written about Daley, including Royko’s “Boss.” And he used creative license to write the dialogue as it probably happened between Daley, Keane, Danaher and others behind closed doors.
If Irish-Americans are looking for a good play from Chicago to go national, this is the one. ♦