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Reviving the conflicts of Skokie’s past

Bradford Lund, Mick Weber and Michael Joseph Mitchell, from left, in the world premiere of “The Invasion of Skokie.” by Steven Peterson. (Photo by Jeff Pines.)

Bradford Lund, Mick Weber and Michael Joseph Mitchell, from left, in the world premiere of “The Invasion of Skokie” by Steven Peterson. (Photo by Jeff Pines.)

“The Invasion of Skokie” never happened.

A new play at Chicago Dramatists in River West, the title recalls the time in the late 1970s when a group of neo-Nazis proposed to march through the Chicago suburb. At the time, Skokie’s population included some 40,000 Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. The racists chose Skokie to make a point after Chicago denied them a permit to march in Marquette Park, where they’d expected to find sympathizers.

The village of Skokie did everything it could to prevent the march, through legislation and court action, ultimately applying to the Supreme Court after lower courts ruled the town’s actions an unconstitutional suppression of free speech. Ultimately, with then Mayor Albert J. Smith prepared to cordon off Skokie, the dispute fizzled out when the would-be Nazis canceled their suburban march upon receiving a Chicago Park District permit for a Marquette Park rally. Nevertheless, the controversy pitted Jew against Jew as free-speech advocates vied against outraged genocide survivors and their families and supporters.

Although he takes a few liberties with the strict chronology of events in his family drama set against the charged atmosphere of the imminent march, playwright Steven Peterson does a good job of presenting the facts and setting the stage without bogging viewers down. The world-premiere play is an outgrowth of an earlier Peterson work, “The Shabbes Goy.”

Morry Kaplan, an otherwise mild-mannered Skokie resident, becomes so outraged about the proposed Nazi march, he plans to get a gun, much to the consternation of his loving wife, Sylvia, and his adult daughter, with whom he’s continually at odds. Debbie, a lawyer, believes strongly in the First Amendment and thinks her father is a schlemiel. Conflict comes to a head when the Kaplans, more-or-less observant Jews who try but don’t always succeed in keeping the traditions, are gathering for dinner just before the close of the sabbath.

Two longtime family friends from the old Chicago neighborhood are also on the scene (a perfect Skokie backyard set by Grant Sabin, complete with sliding glass door, flowered patio set, coiled garden hose and Weber grill): Howie Green, a nebbishy boyhood pal of Morry’s, and Charlie Lindal, an upright young man who once worked in the Kaplans’ old synagogue as a “shabbes goy,” a gentile who does jobs prohibited to Jews on the sabbath. Morry and Sylvia love and approve of Charlie … but not to the extent — as it shortly proves he wishes — of agreeing to him as a son-in-law.

The plot focuses more on family disputes over matters of trust, respect and identity rather than politics. Morry shows his ability to stretch to meet his daughter’s engagement by suggesting that Charlie convert to Judaism. Charlie says no, without going into much detail about his reasons.

Although she explodes at the suggestion, at that point, Debbie starts backing off, and we’re left wondering if she agreed to marry Charlie merely to provoke her father. Or perhaps in an effort to please him — at one point, she asks Charlie if he really wants to marry her or just to marry into her family, and Morry tells Charlie to be a son, not just a son-in-law.

Peterson blends a good deal of humor into the emotional situation, but he also downplays the trauma. Thus the play lacks the passion of the 1981 Danny Kaye’ docudrama “Skokie.”

Besides keeping the Skokie conflict in the background, Peterson also avoids other hot spots. Charlie had been in the army — he winds up showing Morry how to use the rifle — but the script carefully tells he served in Germany, steering clear of the issues of the Vietnam era. Nothing is made of any connection between Charlie’s stay in Germany and Nazis, either.

“The Invasion of Skokie” leaves much unresolved, but Richard Perez’s careful direction and a highly skilled cast give us a keen slice of life of the period. Mick Weber portrays Morry more sympathetically than the playwright paints him, while Tracey Kaplan has the quixotic Jewish American Princess down pat. Bradford R. Lund provides counterpoint as the stolid but determined, lovestruck Charlie. Cindy Gold shines in the Jewish-mother role of Sylvia, particularly in one of the best scenes, an Act II segment where she gives Debbie what for. Michael Joseph Mitchell puts in a warm and wonderful performance as Howie, who doesn’t quite have it together but knows what it takes.

Skokie has changed a good deal since 1978, but these characters and conflicts remain universal.

Chicago Dramatists’ ‘The Invasion of Skokie’

Theater: Chicago Dramatists in River West.

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 10.

Tickets: $32.

Dining: For a unique dining experience near the theater, check out The Silver Palm, an American restaurant housed in a 1947 train car.