Fellow Travelers, now in its third outing since its 2016 Cincinnati première, makes admirable strides in the direction of inclusivity. While consensual, the story’s same-sex relationship between Hawkins and Timothy is laced with McCarthy-era paranoia, with far-reaching implications. The older Hawkins turns out to be deeply divided about his sexual orientation, adamantly asserting that neither he nor Timothy are gay while eagerly setting up a protected domestic space for the two of them. McCarthy’s real-life gay but closeted colleague Roy Cohn, whose name and identity surface repeatedly in the libretto, resonates strongly in a story which ends tragically for the young idealist Timothy. Hawkins pursues a separate public identity as a heterosexual married man. Timothy attempts to carve out his own personal space by enlisting in the army, but returns all too willingly to the duplicitous scenario. When he does, darker linings of standard operatic stories such as Don Giovanni, La traviata or Madama Butterfly seep through. An important initiative for sure, and the 1950s were admittedly troubling times for many, so Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited project is now hopefully emboldened to move even further forward with the stories it shares.

Greg Pierce’s libretto is impressive in the way parallel and competing realities dovetail with each other, facilitating Kevin Newbury’s dynamic and seamless stage direction. Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s simple and effective sets meanwhile tease out key ideas while promoting fluid scene changes. Hawks’ masterful denunciation of his homosexual urges, when officially interrogated, thus ends up with him in Timmy’s arms, in bed. Timmy’s remark to Hawk that he’s a “lucky devil” in his Capitol Hill socializing circle reminded me of the Lyric’s recent production of Gounod's Faust, also directed by Newbury and designed by Tzykun. Hawk indeed has something Mephistopholean about him.

Musically, Timmy’s optimism and industriousness are well-conveyed by energetic, minimalistic patterns, while Hawk’s influence leaves a dark aural stain early on. Deep drones gain force with McCarthy’s appearance, while an Eastern musical aesthetic emerges as Timmy confronts his inner yearnings. What has elsewhere been identified as a medieval troubadour influence is surely more generally sensed as something stereotypically dance-like, seductive and ultimately foreign to the regular musical tapestry. Playing on the theme of the Red Scare, Hawk alludes to Hell’s Kitchen, a red hot world traced by a sultry clarinet theme that suggests his licentious side, one at odds with Timmy’s honesty. Timmy and Hawk’s relationship is recognized with some acceptance by the latter’s assistant Mary, a demanding role sung with prescient clarity and sympathetic passion by Devon Guthrie.

As Timmy, Jonas Hacker is ideally cast, embodying naïveté and passion equally. His key solo scene, a confessional in church, is riveting. Effusively archaic, a near-Wagnerian blazing universe opens up as his fresh sexual awakening takes root, with conductor Daniela Candillari coaxing a torrent of luscious sound from the chamber ensemble. Hawk’s solo much later in the drama is also penetrating, especially given the extent to which his many flaws have been revealed. Alone, he hints that Timmy means something very important to him, despite his condescending attitude and inability to fully accept his choices. Joseph Lattanzi navigates the slippery slopes of Hawk’s manipulative character with panache.

Considering the opera’s subject matter, it’s remarkable that the audience laughed often and heartily. The text is in fact full of witty and idiomatic remarks, lending balance to the work. Timmy’s praise of Senator Potter, for example, takes the form of rapidfire comic patter in the best Rossinian sense. Reginald Smith, Jr capably performs Potter together with other small roles, while Marcus DeLoach’s solid performance of McCarthy lends dark meaning to his subsequent enactment of Hawk’s interrogator. Vanessa Becerra aptly characterizes Miss Lightfoot, the nosy secretary keen to ferret out dissidents, as does Amy Kuckelman with Hawk’s place-holding wife Lucy. We are not granted access to Timmy’s emotional world following Hawk’s greatest act of betrayal, a chilling reminder of the ease with which real human lives can be rerouted.