Chicago Theaters Present a Dramatic Portrayal of Lead Contamination Unleashed

Two Chicago theatre companies—A Red Orchid and the Goodman-- are having their say about the EPA’s changes in pollution regulations, curtailing of pollution monitoring, and weakening of the Clean Water Act. Both dramas are adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s late 19th century play “An Enemy of the People,” in which the Norwegian town’s Public Health Springs have become contaminated but the town doesn’t want to clean up the problem because of the high cost and the loss of tourism.

Brett Neveu’s play, “Traitor” at A Red Orchid theatre centers around a small town in Illinois in which lead has been found in the soil near a school and has affected the children but the town says the clean-up is too expensive. The story reflects a real life drama that continues to play out in East Chicago, Indiana, slightly East of Neveu’s location, where lead was found in the soil under the houses and the nearby school of the residents of the West Calumet housing development. It has taken 25 years for the city of East Chicago to begin to clean up the area despite it being designated a Superfund site in 1993. In 2016 all of the affected residents were told to move and the school was closed. Interestingly, Neveu’s adaptation credits the discovery of the problem to a teacher who notices the number of lethargic students in his classroom. In East Chicago, the effect of the students’ probable increase of lead levels in their blood and the probable consequences of this has not been reported.

Robert Falls’ adaptation at the Goodman Theatre maintains the Norwegian location. However, it is almost impossible to ignore the similarity between Ibsen’s reference to contaminated water and the contaminated water found in Flint, Michigan, where the Goodman has already supported one adaptation of Ibsen’s play, entitled “Public Enemy: Flint,” by Purni Morrell which was presented at a Flint, Michigan, Gymnasium this past summer.

A review of Traitor, the play at A Red Orchid Theatre can be read on my Feb. 28 blog. An interview with the Red Orchid playwright of Traitor, Brett Neveu, appears in my February 22 blog.

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