4 out of 4 stars
We live in an age when every institution that makes up civil society is being rocked by forces seemingly beyond human control, destroyed by the flawed nature of humanity, where truth itself seems variable, and where anger and violence exist just around the corner. Into this time comes Brett Neveu’s world premiere of Traitor, at Old Town’s A Red Orchid Theatre, a mostly faithful reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of The People.
We are introduced to the Stock family, consisting of school science teacher Tom (Guy Van Swearingen playing a quixotic Everyman), his long suffering work-at-home editor wife Karla ( played as vulnerable and determined by Dado) his firebrand lesbian first grade teacher daughter Molly ( played with deep intensity by Missi Davis) and his almost silent teenaged son Randal (played with sulking realism by Nation Henrikson). This is a family holding on to the middle class by their fingernails in a rented home whose only upwardly mobile item is a new couch. The show begins with their Eastlake Illinois town paper assistant editor Madison Bills (played with earnestness by Kristin Ellis) waiting for a meeting in Karla’s kitchen. Its Taco Tuesday and everyone is gathering for a story meeting. The town paper, called the Non Pareil, is run by Walter Hove (played well meaning but flawed by Larry Grimm), who inherited the paper and a small endowment from his father. We will also meet Tom’s sister Patti ( played strong and smart by Kristen Fitzgerald)now the powerful Mayor of Eastlake who made her money in real estate. At some point Karla’s prickly but successful father Howard Kihl comes through and its clear no one likes him(though Frank Nall plays him as a mostly sympathetic fellow).We will also come to know and like small town gadfly Jenn Sheffer (played for comic relief by Natalie West) the small business owner and Unitarian who owns Needles, a craft boutique.
The town has rescued itself by building a brand new state of the art charter school that has revitalized the community. Tom Stock, who had a hand in creating the school, has a hunch, and has sent soil samples from the new school to a friend who is a chemist and during the evening has gotten the results back: apparently the dirt the school sits on is deeply contaminated from lead, which may or may not have come from the factories owned by Kihl, and other industries in the area. Tom wants to expose this, and Walter wants to cover the scandal. Tom emails the head of the town council and within 24 hours everyone in town knows and is picking sides. Tom will continue to believe for a while that he is a hero in this situation: Karla intimates that this is a pattern with their history--- they move somewhere and try to build a life and something happens with Tom sandbagging them and they have to move on. Karla is the real hero here, making tacos and coffee, trying to maintain a kind of domestic stability and tranquility as everything around her crumbles. As we follow Tom down his rabbit hole, we will have to consider the pernicious nature of small towns where everyone knows everyone and sees people as insiders and outsiders, where money talks loudest, and small people nurse their delusions of grandeur even as they sell out the others. Everything will come to a head in a contentious Town Council meeting that ends in violence and then there is a surprise tragic ending that will make it abundantly clear what the real stakes are in political wrangling: someone always gets actually physically hurt, and sometimes there is no way to fix that hurt. There are twists and turns along the way, questions about the place of media, the slippery slope of elected office, the nature of greed, all of which are worthy of the best conspiracy theorist, but we are left with a group of characters, people, who will never be the same. Ibsen wondered if his play was a comedy or a drama, Neveu’s play is a tragedy. And it is a tragedy that is playing out all over our country.
A Red Orchid Theatre’s intimate space, and here they move the audience down the street to a vacant storefront for a scene where we become characters at the town council meeting , makes sure that the audience cannot get any distance on the drama unfolding a personal space away. We are part of the story. And as someone who has had to test my own water for contamination, this is a narrative that hits very close to home. We like to believe that Government keeps us civilized, but as this play shows, we are but a data point away from disaster since our institutions are run by flawed humans who may or may not have our best interests at heart. And what are our best interests? Do we sacrifice our health for economic vitality? This is a choice made by every community that welcomes fracking into their region, every town next to a nuclear plant, by everyone living next to BP in Whiting as it keeps leaking toxic chemicals into Lake Michigan.
Director Michael Shannon has assured that you will laugh during the evening at Traitor . And he has let the audience be entertained by an ensemble of wonderful actors skillfully bring this tale to life. But he has also given you a great deal to take home and think about, and you will read your paper differently the next day. This art holds a mirror to life in our time, and you can’t unsee what you witness, or fail to see the connections with your reality in a week that gave us Fake News Awards from the White House.
Traitor is playing at A Red Orchid Theatre 1531 N Wells Avenue in Chicago Thursdays through Sundays until February 25, 2018. For tickets and information go to www.aredorchidtheatre.org or call 312-943-8722. Or go to https://www.theatreinchicago.com/traitor/9534/