By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Apr 28, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Dramatist Jeffrey Sweet was tired of his hometown's history being summed up by a couple of cartoonish images – the St. Valentine's Day massacre and Mrs. O'Leary's cow. He wanted to write a play about something substantive and intriguing from Chicago's past.

The result was "American Enterprise," an ambitious and sprawling 18-character piece focusing on the inventor and industrialist George Pullman, the creator of the railroad sleeping car that bore his name. Those cars were manufactured in a company town Pullman built and named after himself in the late 19th century.

Located 14 miles south of the Chicago city limits of the time, the village was an oddly Utopian venture that was supposed to create a healthy physical and moral environment for company employees while turning a profit for Pullman. He micro-managed and controlled everything, from who could give a public speech to the religious denominations allowed to exist in the community.

The experiment worked well until a business slump in 1894. Pullman cut wages and jobs but did not decrease the cost of living in his town. A nasty strike, broken up by federal troops, burst the idealistic bubble, and the entity was absorbed into the city of Chicago.

Bay View's Soulstice Theatre is giving "American Enterprise" its Milwaukee premiere tonight in a production that will run through May 14. Given the hot political topic unions have become in Wisconsin in the past several months, the small company appears to be prescient in scheduling the play as the final offering of its 2010-11 season.

"It's a rip snorting big story," Sweet said of his drama during a recent phone interview. "It's the most technically complex piece I have ever written."

As a raw script, "American Enterprise" was awarded a Kennedy Center-American Express Fund for New American Plays grant, and the drama won plenty of plaudits after its initial production 20 years ago. Former Milwaukeean Wesley Savick directed that staging in Chicago.

"American Enterprise" was cited by the American Theatre Critics Association for being one of the outstanding new plays of the 1991-92 season, it was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle's John Gassner playwriting award, and a scene from the script was printed in The Best Plays of 1991-92.

Although he lives in New York, Sweet has had a long ongoing relationship with Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, which has produced 15 of his plays. He has taught playwriting, critical writing and improv for writing at the Actors Studio, HB Studios and The Second City.

Sweet has authored a history of The Second City, "Something Wonderful Right Away," and two texts on dramatic writing, "The Dramatist's Toolkit" and "Solving Your Script." He also writes for Dramatics Magazine. His most produced play, "The Value of Names," was mounted by Next Act Theatre last year.

"American Enterprise" explores Pullman, his company town and his failed relationships with his two sons. The Pullman strike was a national political issue. Pullman the man came to be loathed by both the working class and his fellow industrialists.

"He was a pig-headed guy but I have a certain amount of sympathy for him," Sweet said. "He tried to be a good and valuable human being. Intentions, of course, are not enough."

The playwright said Pullman believed environment shaped character, and he wanted his town to be a machine that turned out good citizens. The bars and brothels that were prevalent in bare-knuckled Chicago were banned from Pullman.

While other employers had no regard for the living conditions of their workers, Pullman demonstrated genuine concern. But he ran the town and his business with dictatorial certitude, and he refused to compromise. Sweet noted that sociologist and reformer Jane Addams, the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, called Pullman a modern King Lear.

The "American Enterprise" script includes some of the leading characters' own words, taken from testimony given to a post-strike federal commission. The show also includes a handful of period songs. Some are authentic from the era and others were written by Sweet in collaboration with Michael Vitali.

Boulevard's Pullman Play

Another Bay View theater company, the Boulevard Ensemble, has opened a cleverly framed program of two one-act plays with mixed success. Producer and artistic director Mark Bucher placed George Bernard Shaw's "Village Wooing" and Thornton Wilder's "Pullman Car Hiawatha" in an adult education class of restless students. He calls the double bill "Two 2 Go."

The plays rather magically materialize out of the classroom setting like songs emerge from musicals. It's a fun and effective device.

"Village Wooing" is the more satisfying of the two efforts here. Liv Mueller's sharply-drawn shop woman, complete with a spot-on British accent, offers flashes of Helen Mirren. Her performance is among the best seen at the Boulevard in recent years.

Michael Kelley is an able partner for Mueller in this two-actor piece. Shaw's familiar obsessions with class and male-female relationships resonate with razor wit.

"Pullman Car Hiawatha" is a metaphorical piece that strongly foreshadows Wilder's later all-American epic "Our Town." The play takes place in a railroad car traveling from New York to Chicago in 1930. As staged by the Boulevard, it is more of a theatrical history curiosity than a well-realized production.

"Two 2 Go" continues through May 29.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.