Reviewed by James Karas
Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882) is 130 years old and it has proven to be a highly adaptable play. It starts as a moral issue when a doctor discovers that the waters of a town are contaminated and naturally he expects gratitude and corrective action to be taken. The issue turns into communal warfare where political and financial self-interest turn the doctor from a town hero into to an enemy of the people.
The latest version of the play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz opened in London in 2008 and was recently produced in New York by the Manhattan Theatre Club. It opened on Broadway in September during one the fiercest and dirtiest presidential campaigns and one feels that Ibsen and Lenkiewicz tailored the play as a commentary on current American politics.
An Enemy of the People goes into high gear very quickly as Dr. Thomas Stockmann announces that the waters of the town baths are contaminated. High gear becomes a gross understatement as the play moves into speed and intensity that can only be powered by jet fuel. It is a truly powerful and unsettling moral and political drama that loses none of its effectiveness by being a familiar story.
For those who followed the vicious American election campaign with its scant regard for the truth, its perversion of values and its contempt for people, the play strikes many familiar chords. Even if you do not care about political campaigns, the play provides a stunning morality tale about the travesty of the truth and the triumph of political and financial expediency and self-interest.
Boyd Gaines as Dr. Stockmann gives a performance of impressive emotional intensity and moral fervor. He is slowly abandoned by all and in the end is almost completely destroyed. He remains unshaken in his conviction that the truth will win out while at the same coming to the conclusion that the majority of people are idiots. He paints himself as Christ figure and he fails to learn anything about realpolitik.
His brother Peter (Richard Thomas) represents the opposite pole. He is a politician who knows that the truth has little hold on people who may lose money or whose taxes may be increased. (I am not sure if there were any Republicans in the audience!) Thomas does excellent work as the conniving and dirty politician who triumphs over the truth.
Our interest in the other townspeople is in how their passionate support of Dr. Stockmann turns into derisive opposition as they maliciously scream “enemy of the people” at him. We have Hovstad (John Procaccino), the editor of the local paper and his employee Billing (James Waterston). Both are zealous about the truth and more broadly about changing the current crop of corrupt politicians. Waterston is superb as the super-enthusiastic promoter of Dr. Stockmann and then the venomous debunker. Procaccino’s Hovstad is a more controlled character. Even more evil is Aslaksen (Gerry Bamman), the printer who pretends to practice rational restraint but is more malicious for putting up that smokescreen.
Dr. Stockmann does have the full support of his daughter Petra (a steady job by Maïté Alina and some support from his practical wife Catherine (Kathleen McNenny).
Michael Siberry plays Morten Kiil, Catherine’s rich foster father who provides an interesting plot twist at the end of the play. Siberry is given a ridiculous wig and looks quite the clown but I suppose he needs to be an eccentric.
The explosive drama is directed by Doug Hughes.
Dr. Stockmann has the opportunity of escaping from the corrupt town in southern Norway and going to the United States which he assumes is more civilized. The irony of the play is that he views the majority of people as idiots. The question that arises in current American politics is”who are the idiots?” The majority who voted for Barack Obama or the majority who elected Republicans to the House of Representatives?
In the end, it is perhaps just as well that Dr. Stockmann stayed in Norway.
As for Americans, whatever that intellectual status or moral standing, one can only regret that the majority of them did not see the play and enjoyed a riveting night at the theatre.
An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz ran from September 27 to November 18, 2012 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY.