Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People–about a shattering crisis of ethics vs. corruption–is getting the stuffiness taken out of it in the Manhattan Theatre Club production directed by Tony winner Doug Hughes.
The trimmed text doesn’t belabor anything as it barrels forward and the translation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz adds colloquialisms like “cash cow,” “closet free thinker,” and “Shit!”
And the cast seems directed to dive into their roles, often going for thunderous declamations, said on the fast side.
Boyd Gaines is Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the Norwegian do-gooder who’s discovered toxins in the town’s bath waters that will cause increasingly serious problems if major reconstruction isn’t started immediately.
But the doctor’s brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (Richard Thomas), becomes his biggest oppressor, feeling that repairing the damage isn’t realistic, and besides, if news of this calamity leaked out, it would ruin the town’s allure as a spa destination and revenue would dry up.
The doctor’s desperate attempts to find allies in his cause grow more and more futile as everyone conspires to declare him “an enemy of the people” who’s more troublemaker than whistleblower–a revolutionary who’s out to destroy the town, not save it.
As the townsfolk scream down the doctor’s cries of concern, I found the play extremely relevant, considering the debate that’s raging about how fracking effects our environment.
It mirrors the history of the response to AIDS too.
In Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a NYC politico turns his back on the plague in the early days because publicly battling it would hurt tourism.
And when Gaines tells off the moral majority at a fiery town meeting, it couldn’t come off more ripped from the headlines.
In that beautifully written speech, Gaines pleads for a nobility of character that could fight all the mass stupidity and argues that in ethical matters, the individual knows more than the multitude.
The solid Gaines–who also played the voice of reason in recent revivals of Gypsy and 12 Angry Men–knows how to do decency.
And Thomas is good as the priggish, misguided mayor who considers himself the town’s moral center (though he seems to recede as his character does).
But for all the punched-up theatrics and speed, some texture seems missing, to the point where the quieter moments, when everyone shuts up and ponders, are the evening’s most effective ones.
At least the old classic has been humanized–and naturally, humanity is never perfect.