Serendipity more often than we realize plays a role in our lives. The plot of a new play, " Traitor," at A Red Orchid Theatre, appears to have been taken directly from a real life situation in East Chicago. But it wasn't. In fact the playwright, Brett Neveu, knew nothing about the East Chicago debacle until one of the members of the Orchid's ensemble, Dado, who lived near the Indiana town, told him about it.
In 2016 the City of East Chicago sent a letter to the citizens residing in a housing development, instructing them to move because of an EPA report that the soil under their homes and the nearby elementary school was contaminated with lead and other toxic materials that had been left by a lead factory that had once occupied the land on which their development was built. (Authorities had known about the lead since 1993 but still permitted the development to be built. During the intervening time, the EPA had been engaged in a debate with the factory as to who would pay for the cleanup.) Neveu's "Traitor," an adaptation of the 19th century play "Enemy of the People," by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, is concerned with lead that has been found under a charter school in a Northwest Chicago suburb. The similarities between the two situations is remarkable.
As Brett Neveu, the playwright of "Traitor," explained to me during an interview at the Lucky Platter restaurant in Evanston, the play has been four years in the making, It began when the story of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, made national news. Guy Van Swearengen, a longtime member of the Theatre's ensemble, thought it was time to revisit the Ibsen play. Mike Shannon, also one of the founding members who can be seen most recently in the critically acclaimed film "The Shape of Water" suggested that the script be updated by Neveu, the third founding member of the company.
So Brett began work on it, updating it and bringing it closer to home. He decided to locate the play, which was originally set in Norway, in an imaginary small town northwest of Chicago that he calls East Lake.He explained that he wanted to create a little, fairly isolated place that didn't have much going for it until the town's people find something that they can bring to it. In Ibsen's play, this 'something' is a spa; in Neveu's updated version, that 'something' is a charter school. "My daughter attended a charter school in LA (when I lived there), so I knew some of the positive as well as the corruptive elements of a charter. It is also something a community could be proud of, and a possible money-maker for those who have invested in it. So it became about making sure losing the school would not only be about losing great education but also about money."
Neveu also changed the problem. In"Enemy," the problem was a public health spring that was contaminated by bacteria. People don't go to "the baths" for health treatments any more, he commented, so he had to find a more relevant situation. Water seemed too close to the Flint situation, so Brett settled on soil. He explained that he wanted a problem that wasn't limited to the interior of a building, but that could suggest that the "entire town might also be contaminated."
These changes in the situation created a domino effect, causing Neveu to change the profession of the main character. In Ibsen's play, a doctor discovers the bacteria and becomes the whistle blower. Neveu's "Traitor" is a teacher who notices the lethargic behavior of his students. Interestingly, teachers in East Chicago never indicated that the students' behavior appeared strange. Neveu appears to have done more research into the effects of lead poisoning on children than the East Chicago residents.
Then there was the contaminamt. Initially Neveu thought of using some kind of carcinogenic substance but people reacted too strongly to it. "If I mention asbestos or arsenic, people get all upset. If I mention lead, no one seems to really care. 'Oh, lead,' they say and go on with what they're doing." That's what Ibsen's townspeople did. They didn't see much harm from "little things they couldn't see" like bacteria. So Brett decided to use lead.
Each of these decisions was made with no knowledge of the drama unfolding in East Chicago. Yet Neveu created a situation that almost exactly mimicked the real situation going on just across the Illinois border.
Whether art imitates life or life imitates art, the play has been a critical success.
My review of Traitor appears in my Feb. 28 blog.