The Our Lady of Angels fire of 1958 looms large in Chicago’s collective psyche, right alongside the Great Fire of 1871. The blazed that killed 92 children and two nuns has never been fully explained, though playwright Charles Grippo tackles it his latest work, “When Angels Wept,” running through April 7 at Prop Thtr.
“I was in third grade, attending Resurrection school on the West Side, not far from Our Lady of Angels” recalls Grippo, who traces his roots on his father’s side to Basilicata; his mother was Polish. “Our pastor, Monsignor William Gorman, whom I mention in the play, was also the fire department chaplain, and he was in the middle of teaching us a religion lesson when suddenly he was called out. At the time, none of us knew what it was. But the next day he was visibly shaken by what he’d seen.”
He adds: “The fire shook us all up. My classmates and I, with our parents, worried whether such a tragedy could happen at our school.”
An entertainment attorney and the author of more than half a dozen plays, Grippo studied police and fire reports with investigation transcripts. But in staging the play, he wanted to wait out of respect to the parish: “I didn’t want to hurt any of the survivors or the families who had lost children.”
Grippo, 62, says his Italian roots fostered his artistry. “My family was very into the arts, though none of them were actually entertainers,” he says. “They listened to opera, classical music, and show tunes, and I fell in love with it.” They also bought him a Hammond B-3 organ; Grippo still has it today.
While Grippo caught the theater bug as a kid, his interests shifted from acting to playwriting. “I even wrote a musical I sent to the Broadway producers of the time,” says Grippo, who lives in Park Ridge. “No one bit, though one major producer liked my work enough to send me back written critiques — and once, when I was 15, even recommended one of my shows for publication to Samuel French, the play licensor.”
Grippo grew to see one of his shows, “Sex Marks the Spot,” produced at theaters nationwide, and has advantages as an arts lawyer. “I can, and do, prepare my own contracts and negotiate my own deals,” he says. “And I have access to many of the major players on Broadway and in films, who give me feedback on my scripts — which is a tremendous help by itself.”
Meanwhile, Grippo refuses to slow down. “I’m working on several other plays, as well as a couple of novels. I own New Lincoln Theatre, Grippo Stage Company, and I plan to do more productions in the future — not only of my own plays but also the works of others.”
“When Angels Wept,” March 1 through April 7 at the Prop Thtr, 3502-04 North Elston Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are $20-$25 via newlincolntheatre.com or call 800-838-3006, ext. 1.