If the height of the American election season seems like the perfect occasion to explore themes of democracy and political hypocrisy, then this adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play is well-timed. If, on the other hand, the seemingly constant chorus of political attacks, pandering, finger-pointing and class warfare has grown tiring, this play will only serve to deepen your exhaustion.
Set in a Norwegian spa town in the late 1800s, An Enemy of the People is a political parable freshened up by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz to appeal to a modern ear. Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines) is the head physician at the local spa who learns some troubling news in the first scene: the spa’s healing waters are actually a contaminated cesspool of bacteria poisoning patients instead of healing them. Dr. Stockman is convinced his discovery will make him a hero. But the tone of this production ensures that the ultimate outcome – which sees Stockmann vilified, shunned and labeled (you guessed it) ‘an enemy of the people’ for threatening the town’s main tourist attraction – is painfully predictable.
The good doctor’s brother, Peter Stockmann (Richard Thomas), is the town’s mayor and has a very personal stake in the spa’s survival as chairman of the committee that authorized it. Casting fraternal ties aside, he uses economic threats and the levers of power to turn the whole town against his dear brother. His manipulative announcement to the townsfolk that their taxes will need to be increased in order to pay for repairs to the spa – while ring-fencing its wealthy owners – sounds painfully true now, so it’s a shame that this production doesn’t deliver the play’s still-relevant themes with more nuance.
His brother’s betrayal may come as a surprise to Dr. Stockmann, but it doesn’t to the audience. Under Doug Hughes’s direction, subtlety is thrown out of the window in favor of yelling. We are bludgeoned by heavily signposted political points that leave Lenkiewicz’s adaptation with little room to breathe. Knowing where a journey is going to end isn’t necessarily a problem, but the route could be far less arduous than it is here.
With a few exceptions, the characters come across as simple and one-dimensional. The whole production feels over-acted, with talented actors like Gaines – who has four Tony Awards to his name – substituting a barked delivery for genuine substance.
But despite its annoyingly loud and preachy approach, Hughes’s production still succeeds on several levels. While Gaine gets stuck in mad professor mode early on, Richard Thomas gives a more nuanced portrayal as the mayor. He is well served by the opening scene of the second half, which is staged with a welcome balance of light, shade and humor. Its dry playfulness is helped by a wider focus on the likes of John Procaccino’s wearily cynical newspaper editor, and not just the Cain and Abel brothers.
Elsewhere, Michael Siberry is great as Dr. Stockmann’s malevolent father-in-law, and Gerry Bamman is brilliantly stuffy and self-important as the chairman of the town’s property owners’ association. Their vivid characterizations are a welcome counterbalance to the production’s more ham-fisted moments.
Beneath the noise and handwringing, Ibsen – via Lenkiewicz – provides a poignant exploration of the issues surrounding politics and society. When Dr. Stockmann gives an impassioned speech to a rowdy crowd of townspeople, we are torn between sympathizing with his anger at being unfairly ostracized and uneasiness at his distaste for majority vote and the ‘idiot’ mob. The play’s exploration of the nature of majority rule is often a heady one, confronting us with questions that have no easy answers. A further strength is designer John Lee Beatty’s timber-framed set, which nicely evokes the unvarnished feel of a town on the make. It’s a good backdrop for what’s at stake for the community if the spa closes.
With a talented and experienced cast, a skillful adaptation of Ibsen’s original play, and a thoughtful set design, it’s unfortunate that this production falls flat. Perhaps this reviewer is just exhausted by the shrill political discourse and fever-pitch of election season. But if you are hungry for more of that sort of thing, this may be the show for you.
You can read our interview with Rebecca Lenkiewicz about adapting Ibsen here.