nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
July 10, 2010
An inconvenient truth threatens to tear a family—and small town—apart in Fracturing, Deanna Neil's contemporary adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. A scientist, Dr. Stockmann, discovers that newly drilled gas wells are contaminating her town's water supply. When the mayor, who happens to be her brother, tries to suppress her findings, the political becomes personal. Dr. Stockmann must choose between making peace with her brother, or taking a stand for the greater good.
Ibsen's play revolved around male protagonists; in Neil's version, pointedly, many of the main players are female. Ibsen's Dr. Thomas Stockmann is now Dr. Thomasin Stockmann, a working mother who balances raising three children with her job as a research scientist. The imperious local newspaper publisher is now a commanding if absent-minded woman, and the meddlesome father-in-law of Ibsen's original is now a prying mother-in-law. This gender shift adds more layers to the conflict, particularly in the power struggle between Dr. Stockmann and her brother, Peter, and in the catty exchanges between Dr. Stockmann and her female opposition.
Neil stays true to Ibsen's essential outline while employing a story ripped from current headlines, the controversy over hydraulic fracturing (nicknamed "fracking") in upstate New York's Marcellus Shale region. (For a more detailed explanation of fracking, click here.) Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of sand, water, and chemicals underground at high pressure to release natural gas trapped deep within the earth. The process is seen by some as a safe alternative energy source, but studies have shown some of the chemicals involved may be toxic and thus affect groundwater. The contamination to the Marcellus Shale's water supply affects more than just the region, as it supplies the drinking water to New York City, a point repeatedly mentioned in Fracturing.
In the play, Dr. Stockmann wants to stop drilling immediately, but as mayor, her brother does not want to offend local business interests. The battle is muddied when people begin to question the ethics of either side: Was it right for the gas company to drill so close to the water reservoir using a potentially dangerous process? Was Dr. Stockmann right to do her research on her own, and in secret, without a committee to back her up?
Neil's program note explains "there are no good guys—which also means there are no bad guys either, by the way." While she gives generous equal time to each viewpoint, the play can't help but side with Dr. Stockmann, making her opponents come pretty close to the one-dimensional "bad" guys they're not supposed to be. True, the ethics of Dr. Stockmann's research are questioned, but this comes primarily from the play's ditziest and sleaziest characters, so it's hard to take seriously. While conservative Mayor Peter pokes fun of the town's liberal newspaper twice, any struggle between liberal and conservative—one of the biggest fissures in American politics today—remains muted here. What you get instead is curious detached politeness. For all its impassioned rhetoric, Fracturing is strangely dispassionate. It's not so much a debate as measured contemplation. I admit I'm on Dr. Stockmann's side—but I wanted to gain insight into the minds of her opponents, to question my own pre-held assumptions. I wanted to be provoked, but Fracturing is more polite than provocative.
Still, it's presented with professional precision that rivals anything found in larger companies with bigger budgets. Maura Farver directs with cool assurance, and scenes bleed seamlessly into each other. The excellent ensemble creates a palpable sense of community. Tamara Flannagan makes a committed, intelligent Dr. Stockmann, while Andrew Langton is a commanding, supportive presence as her husband. Timur Kocak finds complexity within Peter, and Charlotte Patton provides welcome comic relief as Alexis, the ditzy newspaper publisher who preaches moderation in all things, especially politics.
Set designers Josh Zangen and Sean Ryan Jennings have created a wondrously open playing space, backed by a wall that literally breaks apart with each new crack in the community's facade. Summer Lee Jack's intelligent and flattering costumes create a precise sense of character. Sound designer Palmer Heffernan's elegantly anxious soundscape underscores the play's simmering conflict.
Fracturing succeeds on its own modest terms as a contemporary reinterpretation of An Enemy of the People. It may not debate the issue with the rigor it intends, but it nevertheless educates and entertains, a rare combination.