THE SECRET RAPTURE, Element Theatre Company, at Victory Gardens Theater, and THE SECRET RAPTURE, Firstborn Productions, at Chicago Dramatists. David Hare’s plays are not good for Chicago theater companies. Not only do actors have to refrain from running around and adopt a very English reserve, they must understand world politics–a subject most local companies work overtime to ignore.

Hare’s 1988 The Secret Rapture, being given simultaneous productions by Element Theatre Company and Firstborn Productions, is a tragedy stemming from Thatcherism run amuck. Idealistic entrepreneur Isobel, guided by the spirit of her recently deceased pacifist-activist father, tries to blend business acumen and personal integrity. But as the only character aspiring to something higher than personal wealth in a family governed by self-righteous neocon greed, she is “trashed and spat out in lumps.” Yet Element Theatre director Patrick Murphy asserts in the press release that the play “is about an English family coming to terms with the death of their father, struggling throughout with deeply intimate human issues.”

Of course superficially he’s correct. One could make the case that it’s the trauma of bereavement, rather than the politics of selfishness, that drives Isobel’s sister, brother-in-law, and lover to conspire against her “wretched integrity.” And in our Oprah-fied culture, where we imagine that tears and confessions are an adequate response to all social ills, such a reading seems natural. But by refusing to articulate a political point of view and treating the play’s political dimensions as nuisances, as both companies do, they reduce The Secret Rapture to a well-written soap opera.

Given Murphy’s apolitical take, it’s surprising how underdeveloped the family saga is in his production. Thanks to a series of one-note performances and a funereal pace, real relationships never develop and the play stalls in a dreary, portentous mire. Gregory D. Gerhard’s production for Firstborn demonstrates a much clearer understanding of the family dynamics and sprints through the play with the necessary lightness. The cast may go a bit soft on Hare’s hard-edged style, but when all is said and done, they tell a compelling story, incomplete though it may be. –Justin Hayford