An Enemy of the People
At the Goodman Theatre (Albert)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Goodman Theatre revival of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama “An Enemy of the People” is a rousing piece of theater that makes accusing statements about the political process, fiercely attacking both the governing establishment and the common people on the street who support it. It makes exhilarating watching, but only after we leave the theater do we realize that the storyline is full of potholes.
Goodman is presenting “An Enemy of the People” in an adaptation by director Robert Falls. Falls has modernized the dialogue (including injecting an abundance of four-letter profanities), but the narrative and its fiery arguments remain robustly in place.
The action takes place in an unnamed spa town, obviously in Ibsen’s native Norway. In the first scenes we meet Thomas Stockmann, the town’s chief medical officer for the spa. It is the town’s economic engine, attracting tourists from throughout the world. But Stockman suspects that the medicinal waters are actually poisoned by local industrial pollution turning the spa into a severe health hazard for unsuspecting visitors.
Stockmann commissions a scientific study by a nearby university that verifies that the spa waters are a cesspool of disease-producing bacteria. Stockmann intends to present the damning scientific study to the local council, expecting to be praised and honored for his discovery. Initially the town powers-that-be congratulate the doctor for bringing the spa conditions to light, but as the ramifications of the discovery emerge, the establishment turns against Stockmann, realizing that publication of the scientific report would force the closing of the spa and bring ruin to the town’s economy.
The forces eventually rising against him include Thomas’s brother and town mayor Peter Stockmann, along with the president of the local small business association, and the editor of the local newspaper, who originally proclaimed himself a progressive journalist itching to bring down the venal power structure. At all levels of town society, self-interest, cowardice, intimidation, and greed unite to refute Stockmann’s scientific report and eventually brand him “an enemy of the people.”
The key scene is a town meeting in which Stockmann addresses the local citizenry, accusing them of being stupid, willing pawns of a corrupt town government. At the end of the play, the disgraced Stockmann has only his staunch wife and his outspoken adult daughter behind him. The unrepentant Stockmann states he will never relinquish his campaign to shine a spotlight in the villainy and duplicity that festers in the town and declares that ”the strongest man is he who stands alone.”
Thomas Stockmann initially comes across as a hero, fighting for truth against the vicious forces of corruption and ignorance arrayed against him. But Thomas is not without sin. He seems to have a mixed martyr and messianic complex, willing to sacrifice his family’s future to his obsession. He is an idealist, but a dangerous idealist, single-minded to the exclusion of any attempt at compromise. As his righteous indignation builds, he talks of destroying the town and even the world as the only way to extinguish its evil. He may use the word “destroy” metaphorically but the intensity of his anger suggests that Thomas would be a dangerous man with a machine gun in his hands.
The emotional temperature of the increasingly acrimonious debate between Stockmann and the town are hugely entertaining but the verbiage can’t disguise the fact that the narrative fails to conceal jarring inconsistencies. The town wants to suppress Stockmann’s damaging report before the outside world gets wind of it, ruining the town’s reputation. But the report surely is easily available from the university, and its contents are shouted out in the contentious town meeting, scarcely a way to keep a secret.
The poisonous spa waters have been a problem for many years and visitors have been sickened by their visits, but nobody seems to recognize that a serious health hazard exists in the presumably beneficial waters. There are numerous spas in the area, all competing for the tourist trade and surely one or more of them would have realized that something was amiss in the spa waters in Stockmann’s town and turned the discovery to their advantage.
Stockmann tells the hostile town meeting that nothing short of a total housecleaning would purify their vile society, yet what is to be done? Stockmann has no faith in the electoral process or indeed in democracy in general. The leaders are rascals and the common people are dupes. Stockmann is a voice in the wilderness and his insistence that he can save society is pure delusion. He’s a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, futile and laughable and perhaps a little sinister in his monomania.
So the message of “An Enemy of the People” may not stand examination, but the show still has its pleasures. The Goodman production is populated with outstanding performances, starting with Philip Earl Johnson as Thomas Stockmann. Johnson, at least on opening night, started out a little hesitantly but his character gained momentum as the forces of the town closed in on his character. His long indictment at the town meeting is a triumph of joyous indignation. But while Stockmann may have truth and justice on his side in the abstract, he is too blinkered by his own self righteousness to lead a revolution in the real world.
Scott Jaeck is splendid as the mayor and Thomas’s brother, a bullying politician to his fingertips but still a man who knows and accepts how the real world works. Who is to say that he doesn’t have the town’s welfare at heart, trying to convince Thomas to renounce his scientific report with a promise to fix the spa problem sometime town the road? After all, Thomas’s report would bankrupt the community with no relief at hand.
Aubrey Deeker Hernandez is superb as the newspaper editor, luxuriating in his progressive attitudes until the heat gets too close and he changes sides. Allen Gilmore is beautifully smarmy as the leader of the small business association who stands with Thomas until he hears that repairs to the spa would raise local taxes, a catastrophe he cannot abide.
David Darlow has a couple of telling scenes as Thomas’s father-in-law, a conniving man who owns the tannery that is a major contributor to the spa’s pollution. Lanise Antoine Shelley is fine as Thomas’s wife, a good woman who struggles with her husband’s idealism as she balances the cost of the town’s reprisals against her loose cannon husband.
The cast is rounded out handsomely by Rebecca Hurd as Stockmann’s radical daughter and Jesse Bhamrah as an assistant to the newspaper editor who switches sides like everyone else when the going gets rough. And special props go to Larry Neumann, Jr., an actor we don’t see nearly enough, as a hilarious drunk interrupting the proceedings at the town meeting.
Falls’s adaptation is fluent and colloquial, allowing some parallels with the contemporary political scene to surface without turning the show into an obvious screed against a certain national figure currently living in Washington, D.C.
The production’s physical look is perplexing. Ana Kuzmanic’s idiosyncratic costume designs leave the staging without a specific time frame, but they were colorful. Todd Rosenthal’s set is dominated by a giant skylight that changes position as the action moves forward. It apparently suggests something but I’m not sure what. Robert Wierzel designed the lighting and Richard Woodbury the edgy percussive sound and music plan.
“An Enemy of the People” is Ibsen’s cynical response to the complacency and self-interest he believed was suffocating society. Audiences today will doubtless nod in agreement at much that Ibsen targeted in the 1880’s which still afflicts us today. And in the presence of so much good acting and stirring writing the viewer is entitled to tolerate narrative lapses, at least while the verbal sparks are flying in the theater.
The show gets a rating of
“An Enemy of the People” runs through April 15 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $80. For information, visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org/View.GoodmanTheatre.org/Enemy, or call 312 443 3800.
Contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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