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Riveting play about Chicago police torture opens many areas of debate

With its world premiere of John Conroy’s “My Kind of Town,” TimeLine Theatre has worked something of a miracle.

Collaborating with Nick Bowling, that invariably probing and artful director, and a uniformly exceptional cast, Conroy has created a vitally important piece of political theater that never preaches from a soapbox. Instead, by forcefully delivering every side of a hugely complex, profoundly emotional, morally and politically loaded issue, “My Kind of Town” leaves you debating with yourself after each and every scene. And that inner controversy continues long after you’ve left the theater.

In short, this production does that most difficult of all things: It walks the walk of truly open, multifaceted examination, asking far more questions than ever could be fully answered. And given that the incendiary matters at hand involve torture, race, police codes, legal ethics, family loyalties, the media and a continually distracted public, that is quite a feat.

“My Kind of Town” (the title is more than a little ironic) is all the more remarkable given the well-known ferocity of Conroy’s decades of crusading journalism that revealed a long and persistent pattern of police torture and forced confessions in Chicago’s Area 2 police district. Inspired by true cases, but fictionalized and telescoped for dramatic purposes (with a detailed lobby display and program notes recapping the hardcore history), the play’s nine characters are never simple mouthpieces, but rather, vividly real human beings caught up in hellish dilemmas and warp-tight, searingly truthful exchanges.

It all begins in the early 1980s, when a bright but very angry young black man from Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, Otha Jeffries (Charles Gardner, a charismatic young actor impressively forging his career with this role), is questioned by police investigator Dan Breen (a pitch-perfect David Parkes) for his role in a case of arson and murder.

Otha, who claims to have done nothing more than steal some tires, is ultimately taken to a police station basement room where Breen and others (including an unseen character clearly meant to represent Jon Burge, the former Chicago Police Department commander now in prison himself) strip him, apply electric shock and subsequently terrify him into a confession by pulling a plastic bag over his head. That confession ultimately leads to conviction and a death sentence.

To be sure, Otha is no angel. His long rap sheet includes drug-dealing and gun violence. And in a heart-shredding scene that takes place years after his incarceration, his rage so horrifies his saintly mother, Rita (the ever-remarkable Ora Jones, in a performance of exquisite understatement), that she admits she would prefer not to have him released and be forced to deal with the many consequences. (Mildred Marie Langford will take over the role beginning June 22.) But Otha is only one of many men (mostly black, and in some cases innocent) who have been tortured in similar fashion. So the question remains: Is torture simply unacceptable under any and all conditions?

In this perfect storm of troubled souls, the “supporting characters” are every bit as fascinating and crucial to the storytelling as the main players. Derek Garza is terrific as Robert Morales, the Latino attorney with streetwise roots who is working on Otha’s appeal and knows just how to deal with him.

As Maureen Buckley – the district attorney with working-class Chicago roots who sensed just a bit too much about the torture tactics, though she never witnessed them – Maggie Kettering is spot-on in every scene and every transformation up and down the career ladder.

A.C. Smith is all quiet implosion as the black cop who lives in tormented denial – the man who never participated in the torture tactics but knew very well what was going on. And as Otha’s estranged father, Albert, himself a cop, Trinity P. Murdock is a model of selfishness and self-justification.

As for the Breen family, their agony is rooted in what can and cannot be said, with sublime work by Danica Monroe as Dan’s devoted, anguished wife, and by Carolyn Hoerdemann as her “liberal” sister, Peg, who is painfully torn between loyalty to her own blood and her belief that what was done in that basement room is morally unjustifiable.

A provocative play, without question. And most crucially, because of its gut-wrenching honesty and the brave work of its actors, an entirely riveting one.