“Metal Children” at Next Theatre features, left to right, Laura T. Fisher, Caitlin Collins and Sean Cooper.Photo by Michael Brosilow

Acclaimed playwright, director and fiction writer Adam Rapp is no stranger to controversy.

In 2005, his young adult novel, “The Buffalo Tree,” was not only banned from the curriculum at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pa.; but all copies of the book had been confiscated and locked up in a vault in the principal’s office by the day after the school board’s decision.           

“The Metal Children” is Mr. Rapp’s fictionalized (perhaps with autobiographical undertones) account of the process of censorship, wherein the artist is forced to examine, with self-doubt, the impact of his creation, and small-town teenagers, adults, teachers and church leaders are pitted against each other to stake a claim for moral and creative superiority. 

The Next Theatre ends its 30th season with this evocative examination of art deemed offensive by some, offering no easy solutions, and overwhelmingly honest rhetoric from both sides of the argument (aside from fringe elements who seek to intimidate the artist and his supporters).  Perpetually shrouded in gray, this first-class cast and thought-provoking production poses tough questions to its audience:  Does an artist have to defend his or her work in order for it to be accepted as art?  Do critics and audiences have a tendency to read too much into a novel, putting undue weight on symbols, metaphors and messages?  Does an artist have any responsibility to the audience and their reactions?

The play involves Tobin Falmouth (Sean Cooper excels as a complex and unconventional protagonist), a depressive, substance-abusing young-adult author who long ago left rural Iowa for New York City.  Years after it was written, his book, “The Metal Children,” is being banned in the small town of Midlothia.  Critics said the book was a powerful and important statement about the ostracism of pregnant teens in Middle America; churchgoing locals say the book is morally reprehensible and pro-abortion. Tobin, meanwhile, is unsure of why he wrote the book, and even less interested in travelling to the town to defend it. 

After some coaxing by his agent (Marc Grapey), Tobin heads to Midlothia for the hearing, where he encounters supporters, pragmatic detractors and fervent denouncers wearing frightening Porky Pig masks.  The play becomes self-referential as the townsfolk begin to physically reproduce elements of the book, as acts of support and of protest. Thus, Tobin’s work manifests itself in the “real” world. When girls start purposely becoming pregnant in support, however, Tobin is forced to examine this world he has created and decide if it was worth the consequences.

Deliberate direction and symbolic blocking by director Joanie Schultz effectively counteract the surreal aspects of the play’s unfolding, such as the suicide and subsequent manifestation of a young girl as a statue, echoing Tobin’s book.  In addition, moody sound design by Nick Keenan and a stable of capable actors, including Caitlin Collins, Next regular Laura T. Fisher, Caroline Neff and especially Meg Thalken, elevate the proceedings.

Looking over a glass case filled with banned books in the hallway of the theater, I paused in astonishment to see the children’s book, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” It was banned by the Texas Board of Education in 2009-10 because the author shares a name with a Marxist theorist.  My wife and I bought that book for our daughter.  I’ll be sure to keep my eyes peeled to see if she starts wearing too much red.

“The Metal Children” runs two hours and 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.. For tickets call 847-475-1875 or visit www.nexttheatre.org.