Playwright Brett Neveu’s clever, cutting update of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People trades the coast of Norway for the coast of Lake Michigan. The setting is the fictional North Shore burg of East Lake, a community that’s equal parts close-knit and cantankerous; replacing the contaminated baths central to Ibsen’s town is a charter school that’s revitalized East Lake’s sluggish economy but may have been built on poisoned soil.
Neveu’s transplanting could use either more or less specificity. Apart from a couple of glancing references to budget fights in Springfield, there’s little in the script to tie the setting to the Chicago ’burbs, and you may find yourself wondering how a community nestled among other suburbs and in the orbit of Chicago could exist in such isolation; Neveu might have been better off leaving the location vague. And if he’s going to make a movement as divisive as charter schools central to the play’s ethical dilemma, you could wish he’d grapple harder with the real issues involved there.
But Traitor gets right what Arthur Miller’s 1950 Enemy adaptation got wrong: Ibsen’s work is social satire in which no one is a hero through and through. Neveu’s whistleblowing prodigal son, high-school science teacher Dr. Tom Stock (a blustery Guy Van Swearingen), is a self-aggrandizing blowhard who, according to wife Karla (Dado), is prone to ginning up conspiracy theories when he gets bored. And given his elevated sense of his own intelligence compared to those surrounding him, including his sister, the mayor (Kirsten Fitzgerald in delightfully high dudgeon), Stock gets bored easily.
Whether he holds the moral high ground or just suffers from “some white guy oppression complex” is both beside the point and exactly the point as shaped by Neveu, Michael Shannon (making a rare but confident directing outing at his home theater) and a crack ensemble that also includes Lawrence Grimm, Natalie West and Missi Davis. The sharpest observation in Neveu’s take doesn’t fully reveal itself until the play’s final moments, but it rings true to our current discourse, in which the loudest voices are too concerned with winning arguments to see what’s being lost.
A Red Orchid Theatre. By Brett Neveu. Directed by Michael Shannon. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.