Enemy of the People
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
February 7, 2010
I left The Barrow Group's rendition of Henrik Ibsen's Enemy of the People feeling exhilarated. This timeless masterpiece is so jarringly relevant to our current political, economic, and environmental conditions that I would definitely recommend it as food for thought. (Note: A good summary of the story is at Sparknotes.)
The adaptation by Seth Barrish and K. Lorrel Manning emphasizes our ongoing correlating conflicts. The style of the dialogue seems to be reaching for naturalism, either in the adaptation, or in its direction (also by Manning). There are many stutters, "ums," and "ahs," and often characters speak over one another, seemingly in order to give the impression that they are coming up with the lines spontaneously, or maybe the actors are genuinely quasi-improvising. This style drifts away in longer speeches leading up to the climax, giving sudden clarity and eloquence to the expression of the play's central ideas. While the dialogue is somewhat contemporized, the production design by Kate Rance seems to keep to its original period in set and dress. Transitions and certain portions of the action are also dotted with narration that fill in information on the setting, or what goes on unseen, such as in the large town meeting scene as the crowd's attitude elevates.
The off-the-cuff style takes some getting used to, but with the mayor's arrival at the People's Daily Messenger's office, and his plea not to print an article revealing that town's wells are poisoned, the play really starts feeling connected. There is an interesting shift from Mayor Peter Stockmann's initial mere arrogance to conspiratorial severity to sincere yet imprudent practicality that Myles O'Connor navigates quite effectively. Throughout, Larry Mitchell as protagonist Dr. Thomas Stockmann has a consistent nerdy high school know-it-all "uh, duh" attitude in response to the lack of understanding around him, until he makes a major shift at the town meeting to total indignation. Dr. Stockmann is presented as a bit wimpy, however stubborn, rather than some gallant hero of rational thought. Clare Schmidt as Petra Stockmann provides an enjoyable spark of youthful optimism to her father's side. Herbert Reubens's smug, assertive anger as Mr. Kiil is an excellent foil to his son-in-law Dr. Stockmann's submissiveness when the two confront over the status of the public baths. Reubens's performance is focused, clear, and dedicated. Comedic relief comes in the form of lack of clear focus from Edward Connors as John Aslaksen, whose stupefied gaze and quivering jaw balanced off intensity as it arose. His short speech on the virtue of "moderation" right in the midst of the vicious town meeting made me smile.
I appreciated the simple profundity of the ending scene between the overwrought Stockmann and his daughter, focused around a small glass of water. The unseen yet pervasive problems are the most difficult to address. They need to be discovered, accepted and remedied, and each step in that process exceeds the difficulty of the former. Issues that are systemic—like public baths which the entire economy of a town depends upon being poisoned, or private influence in politics through campaign financing, or global dependency on and over usage of fossil fuels—once revealed, have implications that blockade their reception, and furthermore require initiative by a body of power toward the total restructuring of mentalities and ways of life.
On the surface, the play's anti-democratic, or maybe more specifically, anti-populist assertions by Dr. Stockmann could be taken as an implied assertion of the virtue of a monarchy or aristocracy. But then what of the corrupt mayor and the town council? It more directly indicates that truth is not to be found in the public realm, by its nature, so it requires the initiative and creativity of individuals to continuously reassess and reassert what is true, what is of value, and what is to be done. And if "The People's Daily Messenger" won't communicate what is discovered to be true to the population at large, than what medium remains? Ibsen proposes no medium, but rather a desperate individual, with only his truth, his daughter's faith in him, and in this production it ends with, "there is hope in America." Only a nation of individual truth seekers will pursue truth as a whole and become that body of power which can alter its destiny for the better. It seems there was hope for us once. For truth to override assumed reality now requires everyone, because poison is in the very water we drink.