Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured: Guy Van Swearingen and ensemble. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Conor McShane
Sometimes, the “right thing to do” seems so obvious, it’s a wonder that people can’t seem to get out of their own way long enough to do it. The problem at the heart of Brett Neveu’s TRAITOR seems like one that everyone can get on board with fixing, and yet the opposing forces of self-interest and poisonous group-think constantly cloud the real issue at hand. A Red Orchid Theatre’s production —with an ace cast of Chicago theater vets directed by Michael Shannon — illustrates that this is all too common, either in a small town or the highest offices of the land.
A modern-day adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, TRAITOR takes place in the small Illinois town of Eastlake, largely in the modest home (John Musial’s set and Lydia Hanchett’s props create an incredibly detailed portrait of cluttered domesticity) of local science teacher Tom Stock (Guy Van Swearingen), who lives with his wife Karla (Dado), a textbook editor, and his teenage son Randal (Nation Henrikson). Stock has made a bombshell discovery: the local charter school, recently opened as an attempt to bring life back to the struggling town, is built on soil contaminated with dangerous amounts of lead. Stock initially just hopes to get through to someone the message that the town’s kids are in danger, though with the help of newspaper editor Walter Hove (Larry Grimm, though played in the performance I saw by understudy Steven Winterstein) and his new employee Madison Bills (Kristin Ellis), they hatch a plan to expose the corruption and negligence of the local government as the true cause of the contamination. Complicating matters is the fact that Stock’s sister Patty (Kristen Fitzgerald) is now the mayor, and isn’t too keen on what this discovery could mean for the future of the town. Also in the mix is the Stocks’s older daughter Molly (Missi Davis), also a teacher at the school; Jenn Sheffer (Natalie West), the funkily dressed owner of the local yarn shop and member of the town council; and Karla’s dad Howard Kihl (Frank Nall), a local business magnate whose factories may have contributed to the current contamination.
What starts out as a fairly straightforward story of a man seeking the truth at the risk of personal and professional ruin becomes something knottier and more chaotic as Stock’s crusade continues to spin out of control. Everyone has their own interests at heart, from Walter’s hope of some juicy journalistic material to elevate his paper’s credentials to Stock’s own seeming desire for glory (not to mention some personal views that border on Eugenics — something Ibsen himself supported). The play takes a rather abrupt turn at the start of Act 2, when the action moves from A Red Orchid’s space to an empty storefront down the street for a calamitous town council meeting. From this point on, we’re left on even shakier ground, with Stock muddling his own heroism. By the play’s end, it’s not even really about the school and its lead poisoning anymore, but rather about the way that even well-intentioned people can fall prey to their own selfish devices. In other words, it’s not a particularly uplifting tale, but one that’s sadly more true to life.
My initial response at the end of TRAITOR was exasperation, confusion, and frustration at the route the play had taken, but after more reflection, I realize this could very well have been Neveu’s intention. The play seems to lose its initial thread completely as it goes along, with the very issue that kicked it off seeming to become less important than how everyone stands to lose or gain from the truth getting out. The most obvious real-world analog to all this would have to be Flint, Michigan, whose own troubles with severe lead contamination were a cause célèbre for a few months before fading out of the national consciousness. Meanwhile, residents of Flint, especially in its poorer areas, still live without clean water to this day, and the true health risks can’t really be measured for years, if not generations to come. The play’s disturbing final moment is a painful reminder of the fact that, underneath all the grandstanding, backstabbing, double-dealing, and speechifying, a lot of kids are irreparably damaged for life. TRAITOR lets that fact get muddled somewhere among all the back-and-forth, which is a shame, because it’s really the only truth that anyone knows for sure.
TRAITOR runs through February 25th. For more information visit aredorchidtheatre.org.