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Public Enemy

Jimoon Cole, Nilaja Sun and cast                                  photos by Russ Rowland



                                                            By Ron Cohen


 A provocative and slimmed down adaptation of Ibsen’s drama of civic corruption vibrates with timely relevance


“People who don’t vote should be arrested and charged with evasion of duty,” says a character early on in Public Enemy. It’s only one of several moments that slam you with startling contemporary resonance in Scottish playwright David Harrower’s adaptation of the 1882 masterpiece An Enemy of the People by Norway’s Henrik Ibsen. The Pearl Theatre Company is giving the work an appreciative but occasionally uneven mounting under the direction of artistic director Hal Brooks.


The play’s central figure is Dr. Thomas Stockmann, vigorously portrayed by Jimonn Cole. He discovers that the public health baths, which have been the source of his town’s economic renewal, are fatally polluted and will require a costly rebuilding. Any resemblance to Flint, Michigan, is obviously co-incidental, but the production heightens it by its period-free, if not exactly contemporary, costuming.


Stockmann’s situation is complicated by the fact that his brother Peter (Guiesseppe Jones) is the town mayor. Furthermore, Morten Kill (Dominic Cuskern), the owner of the tannery partly causing the pollution, is the father of Stockmnan’s beloved wife (Nilaja Sun).


Guiesseppe Jones


In short order, Stockmann’s findings are rejected by the town’s officials and citizens, and in his insistence that the baths be immediately shut down, the doctor is labeled an enemy of the people. At the play’s end, Stockmann finds himself and his family standing courageously alone against an outraged citizenry, absorbed with self-interest and defiantly ignoring truth.


In both Ibsen’s play and Harrower’s adaptation, Stockmann, however, is not an unflawed hero. He has an ego that sometimes distorts reality.  He believes at first that his report will be greeted by the town with huzzahs and he will be seen as a hero. Later, he proves unable to compromise in anyway with officials in finding a more moderate solution to the problem other than the immediate shutdown.


Harrower’s adaptation cuts away at the vintage verbiage of the original script, and Brooks’ well-paced staging has the show clocking in at about 90 minutes with no intermission. At the same time, though, this tighter writing seems to reveal somewhat uncomfortably the schematics of Ibsen’s plotting, and a mixed bag of performances among the 11-person cast sometimes lends the proceedings the flavor of old-fashioned melodrama. On the plus side, the cast is gratifyingly diverse, racially and gender-wise. The character of a sea captain is transformed into a woman and played with credibility by Carol Schultz, a long-time member of The Pearl company. 


Probably the most provocative element in Harrower’s redo comes in the climactic town hall meeting in which Stockmann reviles the town’s politicians as corrupt and its citizens guilty of a mob mentality which won’t accept the truth of visionary individuals. Harrower reshapes this to a bald and extended screed against the political process of democracy. “Democracy,” Stockmann declares, “has nothing to do with responsible choices but with popular choices…It is the majority voting for ideas that are selfish and egotistical, ideas that promote personal gain over the wellbeing of the planet, ideas which are incapable of creating a long-term future for all of us.”


In contrast to that comment on the importance of voting expressed early in the play by a journalist (who proves to be thoroughly hypocritical), Stockmann goes on to advise his listeners to not vote. “Keep your dignity,” he says. “Don’t take part in this fraudulent system. Join the non-voting party. I never vote. Where does it lead? To the graveyard of civilization.” Cole delivers this rant with an infectious passion and an air of impressive intelligence, so much so that its conclusion, in which Stockmann declares himself to be “an enemy of the majority,” was greeted by hefty and extended applause from the audience at the performance reviewed.


How much of this Harrower (who is best known for his drama Blackbird, recently revived on Broadway) means for us to take to heart is open to question. Is it the playwright or the enraged Stockmann talking? Whatever, it can certainly make you think – maybe even worry -- about our own upcoming election.


Playing at The Pearl Theatre

555 West 42nd Street

212 563 9261

Playing until November 6