Ask why.

Today marks the opening of TimeLine’s 50th production!

I must say, this milestone is a bit astonishing. In many ways, it seems like just yesterday the six of us who founded TimeLine were each pitching in $50 to get the company started. But since that auspicious beginning in 1997, TimeLine has grown exponentially, thanks largely to our passionate supporters. Your patronage, curiosity and desire to engage in provocative theater has inspired us to make TimeLine a stronger and more dynamic organization with each passing day and production.

So, after a string of 14 seasons operating in the black, more than 50 awards for our art and management, and 49 plays that have furthered our mission of exploring history, it is perhaps ironic — and hopefully not a harbinger — that we mark our 50th production with the story of Enron, a company with one of the greatest business free falls in our nation’s history.

But those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and Enron is a trajectory that I assure you TimeLine has no intention of following! Fifty shows, but we’re just gettin’ started!

Bret Tuomi as the disgraced Jeffrey Skilling in “Enron” at TimeLine.

And — ominous superstitions aside — I couldn’t be happier to have Enron as our 50th production or more excited to have it be our first under the direction of the über-talented Rachel Rockwell. She has become one of the most prolific, heralded and admired artists in Chicago’s theater community, for good reason.

We’ve presented her with Lucy Prebble’s epically scaled play, which was a sensation in London and a swiftly extinguished misfire in New York. Such are the challenges we relish at TimeLine, and Rachel and her design team have created a sleek, stripped-down arena in which you will become engulfed in the raucous, gluttonous and seductive world of money-making (and losing).

The story of Enron is one you surely know and might prefer to forget, but the appeal of Prebble’s script is not merely to repeat the sensational news story or to rail at the villains involved. The theatrical roller-coaster ride the play takes us on offers fodder for much more conversation and introspection about what we asked ourselves during the collapse of (fill-in-the-blank-company) in recent years — “How exactly could that have happened!?”

About a week before we started rehearsals for Enron I was traveling, and it seemed everywhere I went I saw people clutching the new biography of Steve Jobs. In airports, coffee shops, on the subway — everywhere I turned, people were probing and mourning the life of Apple’s visionary. And I couldn’t help but think of Jeffrey Skilling and how, at one time during his prime as Enron’s chief executive officer, he and his legions of supporters imagined that he would be revered in the way that Jobs is. At Enron’s height, Skilling possessed such astonishing vision, chutzpah, hubris and drive that those around him believed he would change the world — and the way that business was done.

He and the ever-shining gleam of the Enron logo were so seductive. People wanted to, needed to believe in the company’s promise — and this belief is what would make it all thrive, providing the life and fortune of their dreams.

Now, with the perspective of time (and after the bottom fell out), we have a more cynical and skeptical view. In many ways, Skilling’s foot soldiers at Enron were right: He did change the way business was done. But for how long? That’s a trickier question.

Skilling’s obituary will be markedly different from that of Jobs, and some day people may probe his biography for vastly different reasons. And our continual search for the next pioneer surely will go on. Perhaps we’ll have wider eyes about how or if their moral compass factors into the company’s bottom line. Or perhaps not, just as long as they deliver whatever it is we want from them.

Over the next several months, we will hear a lot of politicians talking about deregulation. Enron reminds us why we need to keep asking questions. Ironically, the Enron company motto was, “Ask why.”

Indeed. Well put.

It’s a question we’re always happy to discuss with you, and we’re glad you’re here to be a part of that conversation about Enron.

I’m thankful to everyone who has believed in and supported TimeLine through our first 49 stories, and I look forward to talking with you about the 50th, 100th and beyond …

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