Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Brosilow
Henrik Ibsen wrote his 1882 play An Enemy of the People as a response to the outrage that had greeted his previous play, Ghosts, which took a long look at the morality of the Victorian era and found it to be utterly hypocritical (which in fact it was). His determination, then, was to write a play about a society that stones the messenger when it ought to be paying attention to the warnings. His new play was about a doctor who discovers dangerous contaminants in the waters of the town baths—a tourist attraction that put the town on the map. At first hailed as heroic, the doctor quickly finds himself the subject of the town’s scorn when its mayor (the doctor’s brother) puts out a determination that the fix for the problem might bankrupt them. In Robert Falls’ excellent and exciting adaptation of the play now at the Goodman Theatre, it’s amazing to see how easily this 136-year-old play fits into our current political era.
The Goodman production, now playing in the Albert Theatre, is richly comical despite its serious subject. Some of that is due to Ibsen (a very funny playwright despite the fact that all of his plays are social dramas) and some to the tweaking of lines by Falls to make them appear yanked from recent headlines, getting laughs from the audience at their own expense, uneasy laughter that reflects the outrages of our time. It’s easy to see our current leaders amid discussion of “fake facts” and whether or not truth is malleable. But Ibsen’s poison pen is not merely aimed at the leaders.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Philip Earl Johnson) makes his discovery in his capacity as the official physician of the baths. Thinking that everyone would be happy that he had saved the town from causing serious illness, he takes his study to the local progressive newspaper, run by Hovstad (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez), who is also his friend. At first, Hovstad, his assistant Billing (Jesse Bhamrah) and the obsequious printer Aslaksen (Allen Gilmore) are wholly with him and anxious to publish. But then the officious Mayor Peter Stockmann (Scott Jaeck) shows up bloviating about how much it will all cost and puts pressure on the paper not to publish, and in fact to publish his own (not even remotely scientific) article stating that the water is just fine, thank you. As the town turns against Dr. Stockmann, he finds his only true supporters are his wife (Lanise Antoine Shelley) and his socialist daughter Petra (Rebecca Hurd). He decides to take it directly to the people in a town meeting, but he discovers that the meeting has been hijacked by his brother and Aslaksen (now actively against him), who will not allow him to present his facts. Instead, Stockmann decides to launch into a diatribe attacking the mayor and council as “stupid” and the people as equally stupid for electing them. (This goes over about as well as you’d think it would.)
Johnson portrays Dr. Stockmann as brilliant but naïve: he can see so easily the scientific argument that should shut down the baths, but has no comprehension at all of the fact that this might bring too-extreme hardship to his neighbors. Throughout the play, Johnson tries to humanize the doctor, whose frustration grows with every scene. His final explosive speech is an acting tour de force: he commands the stage for at least ten minutes, gesturing wildly, loudly denouncing the crowd (calling them, among other things, “deplorable”) and peppering his lines with ineffectual “No offense” remarks. The accumulated anger of this powerful speech visibly exhausts Johnson, as it should, and Ibsen wisely lets it bleed into a quiet, reflective scene where the actor can catch his breath.
Jaeck’s Peter Stockmann is interesting. While we are certain that the mayor’s designs are insidious, Jaeck chooses to play him as the kind of man who can convince himself of his lies rather than someone who is simply vile. (Sounds familiar with our current leadership.) The mayor seems to believe that his way is in fact both right and justifiable, and is utterly self-righteous in his final confrontation with his brother. Another stand-out performance is David Darlow’s Morton Kiil, Thomas Stockmann’s father-in-law, a very wealthy tanner who proves very sneaky as well.
The women are both ahead-of-their-times feminists (and here I am reminded of Ibsen’s previous hit, A Doll’s House, in which his character of Nora also took a feminist stand). Shelley imbues Katherine Stockmann with a quiet dignity, only allowing herself to raise her voice when all is apparently lost. Hurd is a revelation as Petra, the sincere, loving, but also militantly self-possessed daughter. In Hurd’s capable hands, the character is Nora redux, standing by her father and unafraid to go against society’s views.
Falls has (of course) put together a strong design team for this play. Todd Rosenthal’s set is dominated by a three-story rotating glass pane window that, in different configurations, provides the background for Stockmann’s house, the newspaper office, and the town meeting hall. Ana Kuzmanic’s extremely bright costume choices define and highlight the main characters as well as the accentuating the artificial cheer of the little town itself. Robert Wierzel’s lights are especially effective with all of that onstage glass, and Richard Woodbury’s original music adds to the scene changes while his sound design is perfectly balanced.
An Enemy of the People is a play that will not leave you feeling good, but it will seem awfully familiar and relevant for something this old. It’s a bold, heady choice for Falls in this season, and the Goodman pulls it off brilliantly.
An Enemy of the People is now playing at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St in Chicago, until April 15. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from the Goodman Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.