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Heat Wave -Steppenwolf Garage Rep Series

By Steven Simoncicwave logo

Based on the Book by Eric Klinenberg:

“Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago”

Directed by Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary

Produced by Cold Basement Dramatics

At Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep Series

Heat Wave is an indictment of the follies of the Daley mayoral administration

Steven Simoncic’s adaptation of Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave is an  ambitious work that places blame squarely on Mayor Daley’s Chicago city government for the death of 739 people during a July, 1995 heat wave.  The play is a series of scenes that run from medical examiners struggling to identify and process the glut of deaths attributed to the soaring temperature to Chicago Tribune suburban reporters trying to unearth the “real” story behind all the deaths from the heat. The play also covers the Mayor’s staff struggling to put a cover-the-mayor “spin” on the catastrophe. Heat Wave also weaves some personal insights from an intern, a gang banger, and an old man.


I have strong memories of that heat wave and I believe that Heat Wave rightly spends  much time blaming Mayor Daley’s office for all the deaths. As in most cases with a disaster, the bureaucracies were caught off guard and were slow to react to the heat wave. Many of the victims were poor, elderly, and minorities from high crime areas and/or warehoused elderly folks at SRO’s or senior housing. Many lived in total anonymity. In 1995, elderly folks had a distinct “Depression mentality” that profoundly made them keenly aware of being frugal about spending money, especially on household utilities. Add the stubborn attitude resistant toward change, and you have the ingredients for disaster. The fear of crime fueled by paranoia and dementia in many didn’t allow them to open windows or turn on fans and/or air conditioners leading to many deaths from heat exhaustion. Even when city agencies finally tried to go door-to-door many seniors wouldn’t open their doors or talk to these strangers. I remember a senior in the place I was staying with had both fans and air conditioning, but once I left, he turned them off despite the intense heat because he didn’t want to “run up his electric bill.”


Klineberg and Simoncic tried to put a face on the victims and place blame on government for the deaths. There certainly was institutional shame here and the poor seemed to suffer most (what’s new about that?). The most telling scene of the play is the one where the heat suffering old Black man ignores the social worker trying to help him. He simply would not open the door. I believe that fear, inflexible attitudes, and resistance to change together with loneliness contributed more to the deaths than government inaction. Power outages added to the crisis.


The play spends much time with minor characters and bureaucratic ass-covering rather than speaking to why families and neighbors didn’t do more to assist the seniors in their neighborhood by getting them to cooling areas or seeing that they use fans and air conditioners to stay alive. When I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, we kept our grandparents in our home and made sure they stayed cool during heat waves. This play oversimplifies the tragedy and never fully deals with the reality that even government can’t help those who refuse help. The shame and blame should be shared by all citizens. We all learned from this tragedy.

As a theatre piece, Heat Wave is a fine dramatization  that is part docudrama and part polemic against the Mayor Daley’s Chicago government. The ensemble does fine work and the subject matter is a cautionary tale and reminder that  we are all in this life together and we must all be responsible for each others welfare.  This fast-paced drama has 15 effective actors that work hard presenting the problems of a natural disaster that could happen again.


Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: March 8, 2015

For more info checkout the Heat Wave page at

As part of the Steppenwolf  Theatre’s Garage Rep  for days and times

In repertory with  Angry Fags and The Walk Across America for MOTHER EARTH