Author, actor, musician and playwright Jon Steinhagen is talking about his play Blizzard '67 which opens Jan. 12 at the 16th Street Theater, 6420 W. 16th St., in Berwyn. The show opens exactly 50 years after the January 1967 event.
"This is a human story, not just a historical story," said Steinhagen, a longtime Brookfield resident. "It's set in a very tight time period -- during the big blizzard of early 1967. But it focuses on four human beings -- business men who carpool -- and foolishly attempt to drive home from downtown. It's about their relationships. The play focuses on these gentlemen and their different stresses and choices."
This year, for 16th Street Theater's 10th Season, Steinhagen was chosen as their resident playwright. They are now mounting his Blizzard '67, which was first performed at Chicago Dramatists in 2012.
The cast of Blizzard '67 includes Mark Pracht, Noah Simon, and Christopher Stokes.
"I did a lot of interviews before I actually started writing," Steinhagen said. "So I heard lots of stories. I was not born in 1967 so I have no memories of the event. But I got a lot of wonderful material. I have dedicated this play to my mom and dad."
Steinhagen, a highly prolific freelance artist, grew up in Brookfield, went to high school at Fenwick, and worked on his early shows in Oak Park and Forest Park.
Down through the years Steinhagen has been constant, gifted figure in the theater. His plays and musicals have been produced nationally. His short fiction is published widely, in literary journals and in books as well as online.
He's an actor with great depth and skill, playing leading roles like Felix in The Odd Couple, Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, Mack Sennett in Mack and Mabel, and Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.
Steinhagen recently portrayed Judy Garland's piano player in Studio 773's End of the Rainbow for which he had to play piano, lead the band and act as well.
"This was a very intense but exhilarating process," he says.
Steinhagen has won four Joseph Jefferson Awards and his work has been performed from Chicago to New York, from Los Angeles to various festivals across the country.
Among his many honors and awards, Steinhagen won the Julie Harris Playwriting Award for his comedy The Analytical Machine. He seems especially attracted to historical subjects.
His musical The Teapot Scandals (for which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics) was set in the early 1920s during the corrupt Warren G. Harding presidency. The show was produced by Porchlight Music Theater and was nominated for a Jeff Award in the Best New Work category. He also received an After Dark Award of Best New Work for The Teapot Scandals. He received a producer-author initiative grant from National Alliance for Musical Theater.
"Writing for the theater definitely influences one's acting," Steinhagen said. "And acting clearly influences one's insight into the writing process. They both affect one another."
In 2008, Steinhagen was chosen as the resident playwright of Chicago Dramatists.
"I was always making things up," Jon says. "When I was a child in elementary school I wrote a little piece of poetry called 'Toast' and I won an award for it. I was reading a lot and went to the library all the time. We had an old Carnegie Library in Brookfield in those days. I loved it."
More recently, Steinhagen has been developing a series of plays set in 19th Century Chicago history.
"It will be a cycle generated out of Chicago's forgotten past," Steinhagen said. "I have begun with a play set in 1837 when Chicago was just chartered as a city. … This series of plays will cover the period of the 1800s but will stop at 1900 -- about the time when the Chicago River was reversed so that the water would be pure and not polluted."