Van Swearingen and the cast of Traitor. Credit: Michael Brosilow

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882) is basically Jaws with an invisible shark: Ever since the founding of the local mineral baths, small town X has enjoyed a big fat financial boom. Tourists are flocking there to take the waters. But then along comes Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the physician at the baths, who sights a great white in the form of contamination from the tanneries upstream. “All that filth,” he tells a couple of hometown newsmen, “seeps into the feed-pipes of the pump-room [at the baths]; and not only that, but this same poisonous offal seeps out onto the beach as well.”

Naturally, the citizens of X—including Stockmann’s brother, the mayor—don’t take kindly to this revelation. Or to Stockmann’s insistence on its validity. Or to the Ayn Randian scorn he displays toward them at a town meeting. When Stockmann refuses to back down, comparing his neighbors to “vermin”; in the process, they not only fire him but wreck his house and brand him a pariah. Like Jaws, An Enemy of the People turns out to be the tale of a principled man’s resolve to stand up and do his job, even against the wishes of those he serves. Police chief Brody, Dr. Stockmann—wildly different styles, essentially the same guy.

Now Chicago-based playwright Brett Neveu has written an update of An Enemy of the People. In its world premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, in a production directed by Michael Shannon, Neveu’s Traitor hits many of the same marks Ibsen set in the original, with surprisingly few allowances for life in the first fifth of the 21st century. The main difference seems to be Neveu’s attitude toward his hero.

Neveu’s adaptation is set in Eastlake, a stalled-out little suburb of Chicago. The town can’t boast mineral baths, but there is a river, and a new charter school has been built near it. The calculation—that affluent families will move to Eastlake for the superior education available at the charter—seems to be working. New money is flowing in. But then along comes Dr. Tom Stock, who helped start the school and teaches there. On a hunch, he took it upon himself to get the soil at the school tested and discovered that it’s full of lead, probably from old factories upstream. When his findings get leaked, small-town politics take over. One local faction wants the information hushed up; another wants to use it as leverage for settling scores. At the town meeting (staged in a storefront next door to the A Red Orchid space), Stock has got the charter school families with him until he starts spouting a form of elitism even scarier than the one Ibsen espoused through Stockmann. You might argue that Stockmann’s comments are Nietszchean—a free man versus the herd and all that. Stock’s speech skews creepily toward eugenism.

Which is to say that where Ibsen’s doctor is a holy fool, willing to pull down the whole temple for the sake of an idea, Neveu’s is just a fool: a man, culpable in his arrogance and self-righteousness, who’s finally gotten something right but has no idea how to turn it into action. Enemy ends with an incessantly didactic but happy Stockmann ensconced in the approving bosom of his family, claiming to be one of the strongest men in the world because “the strongest man . . . is the man who stands alone.” Traitor, well, doesn’t.

When Ibsen finished Enemy, he allegedly told his publisher, “I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama.” That uncertainty survives in Shannon’s production. The town meeting, in particular, offers satiric and disquieting tones all in a jumble, the most important result being that it becomes hard to know how to take Guy Van Swearingen’s Stock and his wild talk about DNA. Are we witnessing a meltdown? Or was this stuff part of his ideology all along? The problem is compounded by the fact that no Chicago actor presents a more regular-guy image than Van Swearingen: one minute he’s entirely believable as a teacher concerned about lead poisoning, the next he’s Richard Spencer. What happened?

Shannon has the advantage of a resourceful cast, though. Kirsten Fitzgerald is funny-pompous as the mayor, Larry Grimm funny-pathetic as a newspaper publisher, Natalie West just funny as that person in every community who wants to turn civic life into her own personal Xbox. Dado does valiant work as Stock’s long-suffering, ever-supportive wife, but if ever a character needed updating it’s hers. I kept waiting for Neveu to let her have her explosion. (Spoiler alert: It never comes.)  v