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THEATER REVIEW Traitor
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-01-22

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Playwright: Brett Neveu

At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: $30-$35. Runs through: Feb. 25

You see, there's this play about a doctor who discovers pollutants in his home town's main tourist attraction, but his brother's the mayor—yes, it's that one!

Of all Henrik Ibsen's so-called "problem plays," An Enemy of The People, his fable of the individual's duty to oppose criminal deception engendered by popular complacency, has proved most protean in its applicability to cultures worldwide throughout the ages. North American audiences today are likely familiar with Arthur Miller's McCarthy-era adaptation of the 1882 classic ( although Chicago playgoers may also recall Dexter Bullard's Infusoria a few decades past ).

The narrative structure of Brett Neveu's paraphrase follows the original text, transposing the locale from a Norwegian village renowned for its mineral-water health resort to a Chicago suburb hoping to improve property values with the inauguration of a charter secondary-school. Other author-introduced embellishments include instructor Tom Stock's medical marijuana ( which he shares with his chums ), his sister being the town mayor, his adult daughter being gay and his wife holding down an on-line job as a book editor.

What remains unchanged is the propensity of Dr. Stock's fellow citizens, after he discovers that the campus grounds contain deadly levels of toxic metals, to exploit this information for their own gain, cajoling him with promises of support that quickly fade when confronted with pragmatism over principle—not to mention 21st-century relativism over 19th-century righteousness.

Director Michael Shannon ( on sabbatical from his West Coast duties ) likewise revels in innovation facilitated by Red Orchid's eccentric stage space, annexing a detached storefront a few yards up the street for a scene replicating a crucial town meeting in a crowded hall ( another reason for theatergoers to keep their coats on for the duration of the performance ). Most of the action, however, transpires under conditions so intimate that we can smell the Stock family's coffee, toast and uncannily accurate herbal pharmaceuticals.

The all-star cast, too, exhibits collaborative alacrity reflecting decades of ensemble teamwork: Guy Van Swearingen's Dr. Stock and Kirsten Fitzgerald's Mayor Stock may dominate the debate, but every character—from Dado's take-charge matriarch, Kristin Ellis' ambitious young newshound, Larry Grimm's spineless press owner, Natalie West's feisty civic leader and Frank Nall's scheming industrialist to the cameo players representing the Eastlake city council—ultimately has a say on the morality of environmental versus economical interests.


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