Citizens Report American Irish Culture

Little Bear Ridge Road and a trip down memory lane: DOTL

Steppenwolf marquee for Little Bear Ridge Road
Laurie Metcalf stars in Little Bear Ridge Road at the Steppenwolf.


There aren’t any bears living along Little Bear Ridge Road, the new play by Samuel Hunter running at the Steppenwolf through Aug. 4.

I was disappointed. Bears are having their pop culture moment.

Of course, here in Chicago, the Bears are basically the Taylor Swift of sports.

There’s The Bear on Hulu. I haven’t seen it. The main character, Carmen Berzatto, is a chef with six pack abs. That’s all I needed to know.

I guess Bear is the Berzatto family nickname. The chef is haunted by dreams of bears. He takes the family’s Italian beef joint in Chicago and turns it to an upscale place called The Bear. Cool music plays in the background. Something like that.

I have been watching the ultraviolent Mayor of Kingstown. The main character is Mike McClusky, the fixer in a made-up, messed up town in Michigan. It’s a godforsaken hellhole where the prison is the main industry. Kingston people live in homes decorated with dreary wallpaper from another century, if not another dimension.

Mike has a cabin in the woods. He leaves food out for a bear. Mike wants to be a chef. Maybe he’ll move to Chicago and go into business with the dude from The Bear.

One episode has a kid die in a home meth-cooking explosion. Yes. They show the burnt corpse. It’s that kind of show.


Little Bear Ridge Road couch
The couch in Little Bear Ridge Road


Speaking of meth, in Little Bear Ridge Road, the plot involves Ethan Fernsby (Micah Stock), a thirtysomething flailing writer returning from Seattle to rural Idaho at the tail end of the covid pandemic and upon the death of his drug addict dad.

The only other remaining Fernsby is his aunt, Sarah (Laurie Metcalf). Sarah is a nurse. She says she prefers being alone.

Ethan is a whiny man-boy whose writer’s block has turned into a subdivision. His intended short stay turns into years. He meets an astrophysicist grad student (John Drey) through a dating app.

Sarah has a reclining couch that looks like one a pal of mine here in the burbs once had. Sarah and Ethan spend a lot of time on that couch, watching TV, on their phones and occasionally talking to each other.

Toward that, it’s going to be interesting to see how playwrights writing contemporary works deal with the fact that so many people spend so much of their day staring at devices. Maybe someone will put together a reworking of Macbeth as told through text messages.

Anyway, back in Idaho, it turns out Sarah is dying from cancer. She didn’t want Ethan to know. Once he finds out, he becomes her healthcare advocate. He tries to help her navigate the crap insurance system we have.

Ethan’s buddy gets an offer to do his doctorate work at the University of Chicago.

It’s time to break up the band. See, the play’s also about saying goodbye – or not.

Spoiler alert: Ethan’s buddy – the nicest character in the play – heads off to U of C by himself. Ethan’s aunt convinces Ethan it’s time to move along with his life, too.

We’re told Ethan moves to Portland, Seattle’s cousin, where he gets a job in a coffeehouse. Where else is a guy with a MFA in creative writing going to work? He apparently has roommates, because who can afford to live solo in Portland?

Ethan’s friend heads to Chicago and keeps in touch by phone with Sarah.

They don’t hear much from Ethan.

So my bad about there not being any bears in this play. The people suffice, leading their solitary, seemingly lonely lives.

Yeah. It’s thoroughly Thoreau territory:

“Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

All the above has also been the stuff of Irish drama. In fact, the play’s characters’ goodbyes are a bit on the Irish side, particularly the aunt’s.

Sarah dies with no family, but with a nurse (Meighan Gerachis) at her side. As she takes her last breaths, the nurse reads from a story Ethan left behind.

As the Little Bear Ridge Road press kit puts it, the characters “start to understand the joys and perils of letting someone into your own story, if even for only a moment.”

For some reason, this made me think of the cicadas. With none out my way, I didn’t experience them until heading to my Uncle Dan’s wake, then his funeral the next day.

We heard them on the 75 mile drive south. My sister thought it was engine noise. The basically harmless bugs mystified and scared kids in the outdoor area at Panozzo Brothers Funeral Home in Chicago Heights.

I heard them again the next morning as I headed into St. Anthony’s in Frankfort for the funeral mass – a mass for which I was almost late, thanks to a long train running on tracks not far from the church.

While some cicadas buzzed in the trees, a few forlorn fellows flew about the church parking lot, then flailed about on the hot asphalt.


Tom at the Highland Games
Tom wards off cicadas at the Highland Games.


I heard the buzzing bugs again that evening at the Chicago Scots Scottish Festival & Highland Games at its new digs, the DuPage County Fairgrounds.

At first we thought the noise was bagpipes. Then one of the poor bugs landed on a singer, startling the poor lass several times.

This made me worry that one might fly up my kilt. Hey. Once every 17 years is about right for me, too.

Those sad, funny insects.


Coco the lonely pit bull


That reminded me of best fest buddy Tom’s dog Coco, which recently died.

Tom inherited Coco, a goofy pit bull with a melancholy backstory. Plus, the poor dog wasn’t the brightest of beasts.

Tom has an above ground pool. Coco used to like to climb up on the small deck around the lip of the pool. I’d splash her or spray her, using one of those plastic squirters. She apparently loved it. She didn’t want to stop. Sometimes the splashes numbered in the hundreds.

That sad, funny, wet pooch.

That reminded me of sitting in front of a pub in DesPlaines in mid May, killing time before a Spyro Gyra concert.

By the way, if you ever find yourself in DesPlaines, check out Don’s Dock Seafood for dinner. On the outside it’s a nondescript mom and pop place you might drive by anywhere and not think twice about stopping. Inside, there’s a seafood counter and a kitchen that cooks up some tasty dishes.

But back to the pub. We were minding our own business, when an old man in ill-fitting, now-baggy jeans and flannel shirt walked by and started a conversation.

We told him we’re going to a jazz concert to see an act whose heyday was 50 years ago. He told us he used to work at a public radio station in Utah. Part of his job was to emcee summertime jazz shows. He claimed to know many musicians from those days.

He and his wife live in Des Plaines now because his daughter has a good job in Chicago. Before walking away, he also told us he has a buddy staying with him – Al Zheimer.

Sad and funny, that old guy.

Don's Dock Seafood case
The counter at Don’s Dock Seafood in Des Plaines


Spyro Gyra stage
Spyro Gyra stage



It’s strange the things we remember. Theater can do that to a guy.

So I will leave you with a song. I recall finding a 45 rpm  on the stereo at my Uncle Dan and Aunt Irene’s house as a pretty young kid. At the time my aunt, uncle and their kids lived in an apartment above my aunt’s mom’s place on the South Side and not far from the Gonnella Baking Company.

I think this was the song I found. I could be wrong. It was ages ago. Either way, it’s all in the game.

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