For Thomas Bradshaw, the theater is where dark, unfettered human urges run rampant. Rape, pedophilia, and racially driven murder—Bradshaw’s plays ponder the banality of mankind’s basest acts. The id rules; the superego has left the building. “I write about things because they happen, they exist in the world,” he says. “It’s not our everyday reality. It’s the high points.”

This month at American Theater Company, Bradshaw premieres Fulfillment, a drama about a well-to-do black lawyer who buys a million-dollar apartment and then gradually becomes undone by his noisy upstairs neighbor. “The small things, the minutiae, can have a much bigger impact on our lives than the big things,” says Bradshaw, who lives in Skokie and is an assistant professor at Northwestern University. Characteristically, he also tackles race: “It’s never really clear whether anything’s happening because of racism or not, which I feel is a uniquely modern problem.”

Bradshaw, 35, has been flirting with controversy for most of his life. Growing up in New Jersey, he was encouraged by his mother, a probation officer, to become an artist. “I don’t think she cared what kind of artist,” says Bradshaw, who sold his plays to neighbors for a buck apiece. In high school, he raised eyebrows with a script about a teacher who has sex with his students and his own daughter. The drama instructor told him to tone it down. The warning, unsurprisingly, didn’t deter Bradshaw. Later, at Bard College, he wrote a play about bestiality. That work captured the attention of a professor, playwright Chiori Miyagawa, who told him to pursue his penchant for the taboo.

Bradshaw took those words to heart. For the past decade, he’s penned more than a dozen plays, each of which has earned him as many detractors as impassioned admirers. In Dawn, an alcoholic’s son tries to mend his broken family, then seduces his sister’s daughter. In The Bereaved, a cash-strapped widower encourages his son to sell drugs at school. In Mary—his only Chicago production until now—a white Maryland couple keeps a modern-day slave. Perhaps most shocking for Bradshaw’s audiences is that he approaches his sensitive subjects with casual levity. “Thomas’s role is to wake us up to what’s happening in our society,” says Bonnie Metzgar, interim artistic director of American Theater Company. “In the Midwest, conflict has a particular language to it, and Thomas is not obeying any of the rules.”

Clad in a gingham shirt and straw fedora, Bradshaw, who comes across not as a shock meister but as an affable theater geek, says his work is a reaction to a theatrical tradition that he sums up in two words: psychological realism. “It’s more concerned with how people should act rather than how they actually do act,” he says of the notion that good always triumphs over evil. “If only people behaved that way in life. In my work, nobody has clean hands. People are capable of almost anything, given the right circumstances.”

GO Fulfillment runs November 6 to December 13 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. $43 to $48.


Bradshaw’s Literary Lights

Emily Brontë

“Wuthering Heights had a huge effect on me. Like the characters in my plays, Heathcliff isn’t an example for how we should live, but he reveals something about the human condition.”

Ernest Hemingway

“Hemingway pares everything down to its essential elements. It’s very stripped-down and deceptively simple language. I love that.”

Sam Shepard

“Shepard’s characters do the things that people do and behave the way that people behave—which is to say, often very poorly. And he does it unapologetically and expertly.”