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Dennis McNitt in Haymarket
Photos © Trevor Oswalt
The strict definition of "alchemy" is the practice of turning a lesser substance into gold, but the Alchemy Theatre Company's debut project Haymarket manages to spin dramatic gold into straw. Zayd Dohrn's play explores Chicago's Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which a peaceful demonstration for an eight-hour workday was marred by two acts of violence: The police tried to forcefully disband the protest and then a bomber hurled TNT at them, killing 12 people. In what remains one of the city's most notorious miscarriages of justice, the courts later decreed that five people with no connection to the bombing should be hanged.

Although the story is compelling, Dohrn's treatment of it is not. The play begins in the aftermath of the bombing, when many of the suspects have been arrested or are in hiding. One suspect, Lucy Parsons has been committed to a mental institution for her affiliation with the anarchist movement. While a psychologist attempts to cure her of her principles, a cop interrogates her about the whereabouts of her father, Albert, who was one of the movement's leaders. He remains in hiding with his lover, Jenny Hoan, until his comrade William Black convinces him that his appearance in court will be good for the cause.

Turning himself in involves the risk of death, and a large part of the play deals with the sacrifices that Albert is willing to make, but the playwright fails to make the audience understand his idealism. The character's description of what attracts him to anarchism sounds like that of a college kid who has just decided to become political; Albert talks about "the palpable wave" of a demonstration, a "worker's consciousness," and an abstract "sense of duty and moral purpose." Yet we never sense the urgency of the movement or the horrific exploitation of workers at the time, which would later come to light through the work of such writers as Upton Sinclair.

The play's discussion of political violence is also sentimental and convoluted, and Dohrn seems to want to make his hero a pacifist and a militant at the same time. At one moment, Albert states that he opposes the taking of all innocent life, and the next moment he says that working people should fight authority "with bombs, if necessary." The greater point of the tragedy is also lost. Most of the demonstrators were not the bomb-toting caricatures that newspapers made of them; rather, they were people with legitimate grievances, opposing authority in a nonviolent way. And, as is sometimes the case with capital punishment, innocent people were executed.

Dennis McNitt's portrayal of Parsons is clichéd; he even tends to raise his head 45 degrees just before delivering each line. Squeaky Moore, who plays Lucy, is likewise unconvincing; in one scene, Lucy is forcibly restrained from escaping an asylum, but the actress forgets to look winded after being dragged back to her cell. Several of the other actors try to act in "period" style by lending their characters vocal inflections that would sound phony in any era. Of course, some of the blame for these off-base performances must fall on director Robert Saxner. Only Judson Jones as a wounded officer manages to rise above the fakery, portraying his character as a three dimensional human being.

There are many reasons why the Haymarket Tragedy remains relevant; the 1,000th person has just been executed in America since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, and the riot of 1886 and subsequent events also contain lessons about terrorism and the wrong way to fight it. This important piece of history deserves to be explored in a more accomplished play.

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