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An Interview With 'Invasion of Skokie' Playwright Steven Peterson

Skokie Patch goes one on one with 'Invasion of Skokie' playwright and Highland Park native Steven Peterson.

Enjoy a sneak peek from ShPIeL's upcoming North Shore premiere of The Invasion of Skokie , an original play by Steven Peterson, at the Mayer Kaplan JCC on May 2 at 7:30 p.m. The program will include insights from the playwright, performers, artistic directors of ShPIeL; and Todd Whitman, director of the recent documentary film, "Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered."

The play opens at the Mayer Kaplan JCC May 22.

The Invasion of Skokie tells the story of a struggling Jewish shopkeeper, Morry Kaplan, who is faced with a "double invasion" of his home during the days of the attempted 1978 neo-Nazi march on Skokie. While plotting to "borrow" a rifle for self-defense, the likeable but misguided Morry is faced with the dilemma of how to come to terms with his home's second invader: a Gentile family friend who has come to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage.

With Invasion, Peterson proves that he's a faithful observer of both local characters and universal dilemmas. He has stressed that The Invasion of Skokie should not be seen as a history play, but as a family drama about the ways in which people protect their faith and identity.

Patch got a chance to catch up and sit down with Peterson at the offices of the Chicago Dramatists to discuss local history, the character of Morry Kaplan and his own memories of the 1978 neo-Nazi march - an event he attributes, in part, to the creation of Skokie's communal identity.     

Patch: I understand you grew up in the North Shore. Were you in the Chicago area at the time of the planned 1978 neo-Nazi march on Skokie?

Steven Peterson: Pretty much. I was off in college during 1977-78, but I grew up in Wilmette just across the border. My father was a dentist and he had a dental practice in Skokie. All of his buddies were these Jewish dentists that he would sit and have lunch with every day of his 35 years there.

So, I got to know them and their families at that time. I had this running commentary from Jewish Chicago on all events: whether that be the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War or the whole Skokie neo-Nazi situation in the late-70s.  That was huge! Yet, even at that time I had the notion that as big as that neo-Nazi threat was, that it was really something that had a positive impact [on the area] in the long run.

It kind of unified the community. It brought out the survivor community in Skokie. All of these people who had survived the Nazi death camps had beforehand stayed mostly quiet. Though it was a bit of an evolution, one of the big steps in that evolution was the neo-Nazi threat of the late-70s. It allowed people to stand up and talk about what they had been through.

Yet there was another issue at the time. All these Jewish families that had just moved out to the suburbs–all of a sudden their sons or daughters were dating or engaged or married to people outside the faith.                      

Patch: What are the challenges of working with local history, especially when dealing with a subject that some of your audience may have lived through? What are some of the interesting things you've encountered in terms of the audience's reaction?

Steven Peterson: Well, I really like history: global history, national history, but also local history. So when you're writing something that is so well known in Chicago, you have to be careful. Even though I remember living through it, I had to go back and do my research just to make sure that the things that I was referring to would be accurate, or as much as I could make them in a play.

I took some dramatic liberties. I condensed the timing: like when the Nazis announced they were going to go to Chicago instead of Skokie, that really happened like three days before they were supposed to show up in Skokie, but I had to condense that into one day. People–and people who knew the history pretty well–didn't seem to notice. Dramatists take dramatic license.

The other thing too is as a writer who is not Jewish writing about a subject that involves Jewish identity and Jewish practice–as you saw in the Kiddush scene–I wanted to be very careful that I was treating it with accuracy and warmth of feeling. I've been in that situation, like Charlie, as the Gentile friend. I love the culture, but you still have that feeling that you're a little bit on the outside.

Patch: As the Gentile character, does Charlie serve as your own entrance into this story?

Steven Peterson: A little bit. But with The Invasion of Skokie [the father] Morry Kaplan is the main character and as I was writing it, I more and more identified with Morry. Maybe that's because I'm a father, and it was easy to put myself in Morry's shoes . . . even though he's Jewish and I'm not. He is facing a situation where he has a daughter that he loves very much, but he's arguing with her about the whole Skokie march situation. A lot of the play comes down to that father-daughter relationship.

Patch: Morry Kaplan is a very relatable character, or at least very recognizable. Yet, there are distinct points in the play where we do not feel like we should like this man. What do you think are his redeeming qualities, and how does that balance out with his other traits such as his intolerance?

Steven Peterson: Conceiving of a character, especially a main character, I want to mix in both traits that are admirable and noble with those that are far less so. That makes a character truly come alive. It makes it feel more like life.

Morry is admirable in that he's trying to be a good father and a defender of his faith, both against the Skokie march and by doing what he feels is important for his daughter, making sure she continues on with the Jewish faith. He is in a tough situation in that his own business has failed and he sees himself as a failure. He's trying to make appearances such that he's still the father and the central figure in his home. He loves his wife, and listens to her–though he should probably do so more often–but that family, and his faith, is at the center of his existence.

Yet, he's also prone to anger, sometimes intolerance and sometimes rather hair-brained schemes . . . So, yeah, it's a mixture of all those things and it creates, to me, the kind of character I want to see in the theater. He's a mix of all kinds of traits, and we want to see how they play out.

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