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More than one hundred years after Henrik Ibsen penned An Enemy of the People as a tirade against censorship, his message still seems uncannily relevant. And as part of a worldwide collaboration to honor the 100-year anniversary of the playwright’s death, The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of An Enemy of the People serves as a worthy tribute.
The evening begins with the slow dripping of water into a solitary bucket — a slow dripping of truth that will ultimately turn into a flood of hatred and anger. Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Joseph Urla), discovers the healing baths that provide his town with tourism revenue are actually filled with dangerous bacteria from a nearby industrial plant. Naively expecting the town to honor him for his discovery, Stockmann is vilified as first the town’s leaders (including his brother, who happens to be the mayor) and then the press target him as the enemy. Finally, the anger of the popular majority is channeled against him as if he were the root of their problems.
The argument is made that science isn’t enough proof to demand action; that making money trumps doing the right thing; and that if you aren’t with us, you must be against us. Indeed, if Ibsen’s drama seems familiar, it’s probably because you read the morning paper. Given the glaring similarities to current events, many of the play’s more vitriolic lines against the town’s leaders — and their intelligence — solicit knowing laughs from the audience.
After all, it doesn’t take a president to see the parallels.
In his attempt to do the right thing, Dr. Stockmann brings his case to the people — in this case, the audience. Addressing us directly embraces the obvious and provides the assurance that we are all in on the joke, depressing as it may ultimately be.
Urla’s performance is at its most moving when delivering the speech. Accepted as Ibsen’s own, unapologetic rant against the foolish leaders and the majority who follow them, Urla does the pivotal scene justice.
For those most part, however, Urla’s portrayal of Stockmann is strongest and most endearing when he’s filled with innocence and jubilation at the simple pleasures in life during the play’s opening. As his disenchantment with the town grows, his bursts of anger become brief bursts of emotion that become increasingly more jarring.
Philip Goodwin brings a balanced perspective to the role of Mayor Stockmann, a man who values power over family and who must keep his emotions in check at all times. Samantha Soule delivers a powerful performance as Dr. Stockmann’s idealistic and strong-willed daughter. Caitlin O’Connell, however, gives a weak performance as Stockmann’s fearful yet faithful wife. As the flip-flopping press, Derek Lucci is solid as a quick-to-please editor, but Tyrone Mitchell Henderson’s performance as his assistant is lacking.
Though he has only limited time on stage, Robin Gammell truly shines as the foster father to Stockmann’s wife and the factory owner responsible for the pollution. Gammell is to An Enemy of the People what Judy Dench was to Shakespeare in Love.
Designer Timian Alsaker’s simple setting is comprised of mostly chairs and tables set atop a rotating dais, providing a barren and cramped setting for the story. Rusty pipes create the proscenium arch for the stage, acting as a reminder that the real threat, the true poison, surrounds them all and can rupture at any moment.
Director Kjetil Bang-Hansen has adapted Ibsen’s play for a modern performance with enormous success. By drawing the audience into the show, we join Stockmann on his descent from innocent joy to jaded despair. In the play’s final scene, Bang-Hansen creates a lasting image that captures the play’s broad-reaching message in vivid detail.
In this post-wire tapping, Erin Brockovich, big tobacco, and Enron world, Stockmann’s whistleblowing is yet another poignant reminder that telling the truth can be a more daring act than most are willing to support.
Ibsen’s play ends as it began, with the slow dripping of poisoned water. A century later, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of An Enemy of the People is a fine reminder of just how far we haven’t come.