Chicago Theatre Review
Whistleblowing in the Northern Suburbs
Traitor – A Red Orchid
In 1882 Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote a scathing drama entitled “An Enemy of the People,” partially in response to the outrage over his previous play, “Ghosts.” That earlier work skewered Victorian society’s hypocritical attitudes and morals. In his new play, Ibsen gave his main character, Dr. Stockman, a speech in which he fires back at his enemies. He says that most of the ideas that people believe to be time-honored truths actually change over the years; however, when these ideas are challenged, the public becomes angry. In “An Enemy of the People,” Ibsen addressed a series of new truths: environmental versus economical issues, one’s moral responsibility to point out the dangers that may be lurking and the conflicts that can occur in blowing the whistle on life-threatening situations.
There have been many adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s play, including a version by Arthur Miller. It’s even said that the playwright’s idea that the strongest individual is he who stands alone also inspired the blockbuster film, “Jaws.” Red Orchid ensemble member Brett Neveu has adapted Ibsen’s drama about whistle blowing, bringing the story into present-day Illinois. Set in East Lake, a fictional northern Chicago suburb, Neveu’s drama is naturalistic, peopled with interesting characters, all of whom have their own agendas. They each have needs and wants and sharp opinions; like everyone around us, they talk over each other but rarely take the time to listen. The play’s dialogue is realistic and peppered with profanity, thoughtful observations and unexpected humor. His characters mirror those in Ibsen’s play but they’re contemporary and familiar.
Michael Shannon, a founding member of this Chicago company, and a much-respected actor, directs Neveu’s world premiere with stark honesty and great dignity. Barely contained within John Musial’s sprawling scenic design, which includes a meticulously-detailed kitchen and living room, as well as the corner of a local coffee shop, Shannon’s production eventually spills outside the Red Orchid Theatre and into an empty storefront a few doors down Wells Street. Following the intermission, the audience is led to this room, a space filled with chairs and a long table, which are the chambers for an extremely heated town council meeting. After a fracas breaks out among the council members, the audience is led back to their seats at the Red Orchid venue for the final scene.
The cast is led by talented company member Guy Van Swearingen as Dr. Tom Stock. He plays a middle school science teacher who has returned to his hometown with his family. There he helps establish a new charter school that promises to become a beacon of enlightened education on the North Shore. The hope is that its presence in East Lake will lure others to this suburb and revitalize the town. What Tom learns, however, is that the ground on which the school has been built is infested with lead. He’s noticed his students are becoming more and more lethargic, but it isn’t until he sends soil samples to another scientist that his suspicions are confirmed. The rest of the play focuses on Tom’s passionate mission to alert the town to rectify this public health issue.
To compound Tom’s task, Mayor Patty Stock, played with grit and bullheaded belligerence by gifted company member Kirsten Fitzgerald, is his outspoken younger sister. The local newspaper is edited by his buddy, Walter Hove. The newspaperman’s nicely played by the always excellent Larry Grimm, another ensemble member. He brings a quiet calm and some likable befuddlement to his character. Tom Stock’s sharp, perceptive wife Karla is played to perfection by Dado. She brings in additional income as a textbook editor, while organizing such events as Taco Tuesday for her family and friends. Karla’s father, Howard, is portrayed with gutsy gumption by Frank Nall; his role in the lead poisoning conflict grows more important as the play winds down to its climax.
The rest of this large cast includes Kristin Ellis as Madison Bills, Hove’s smart editorial assistant; Missi Davis as Stock’s eldest child Molly, a first-grade teacher and the object of Hove’s romantic interests. Newcomer Nation Henrikson shows strength and promise as Tom and Karla’s young son Randal. Sassy shop owner and candid councilwoman Jenn Sheffer is played with expert, dry comic timing by the wonderful Natalie West. The other council members are played with conviction by Mary Jo Bolduc, Stephen Walker and Jacob Alexander.
Brett Neveu’s world premiere is a contemporary adaptation of Ibsen’s classic drama about a whistleblowing, grandstanding individual, trying to do the right thing while hiding his own flaws. The subject could’ve been ripped from today’s headlines. It’s directed with forthrightness and honesty by Michael Shannon and features a cast of incredibly talented Chicago actors. In a season of plays in Chicago that focus on the trials, tribulations and troubles of living in a small town, this exquisite production is a real standout.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 5-February 25 by A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-943-8722 or by going to www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.