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An Enemy of the People

Jeremy Strong (Photo: Emilio Madrid)

An Enemy of the People

By Deirdre Donovan


Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People comes to raw and explosive life at Circle in the Square. Directed by Sam Gold, and in a smart new translation by Amy Herzog (Gold's real-life wife), this 1882 drama about small town corporate corruption and the selling of contaminated spa water to the public seems pertinent as ever.

The action is played out on an in-the-round stage, with the actors entering and exiting through the aisles. The handsome set, resembling a long narrow barge that has been outfitted with late 19th century accoutrements, is designed by the multidisciplinary collective dots. The authentic-looking period costumes (David Zinn) look like they could have been filched from an exhibit at the Met Museum depicting the life of Norwegian people during the same era.

Isabella Byrd's protean lighting washes the stage with just the right mix of light and shadow. But a change of tone and lighting will come in Act 2 when the house lights are turned up and the audience, in effect, will appear to be the town people, intently watching the drama unfold before their eyes.

Katie Broad, David Patrick Kelly, and Victoria Pedretti (Photo: Emilio Madrid)

For those who need a refresher on the plot, An Enemy of the People centers on Doctor Thomas Stockmann, a medical officer charged with inspecting the public spa baths from which his small Norwegian town derives its revenue. He secretly conducts tests on the spa water and finds it to have pathogens. However, a local majority of middle-class people who are pecuniarily interested in concealing the fact that the famous spa baths are contaminated try to hush him. Although Dr. Stockmann still insists on spreading the truth, the mayor and key community leaders persuade the town folk that he is exaggerating about the bacteria in the water. Dr. Stockmann, once a town hero for his advocacy for the spa baths, is declared an enemy of the people.

The town meeting scene-the climax of the play--is played out with sound and fury. Dr. Stockmann, who has planned the meeting to read his paper about the contamination of the spa baths to the town people, is unable to proceed when Aslaksen, the newspaper printer, interrupts him, pointing out that they ought to elect a chairman for the meeting. Even though Dr. Stockmann rebuts that there is no need for one, the mayor, who is his brother, insists that there is, and the consensus is with him.

Since this is an Ibsen drama, characters will undergo reversals of fortune and many relationships will change: Hovstad, the cowardly editor of the newspaper who regularly published Dr. Stockmann's scientific research, now refuses to publish his paper on the contaminated water. The mayor forbids Dr. Stockmann to read his paper on the spa baths at the town meeting since he knows it could have a devastating impact on the town's commercial interests. The town people, enflamed by the mayor, devolve into a mob, manhandling Dr. Stockmann at the town meeting and then vandalizing his house that evening. Dr. Stockmann leaves the town meeting, smarting from the shards of ice heaped on him and his pants ripped. Outraged, he pointedly remarks to his daughter Petra on the following morning:

"Well, when you're fighting for truth and justice, don't wear your good pants."

Michael Imperioli (Photo: Emilio Madrid.)

There's been some retooling of the play, most notably with the jettisoning of Dr. Stockmann's wife Katherine. In Herzog's version, Katherine has died before the play begins of an unnamed illness. Besides deleting Katherine from the dramatis personae, Herzog also has softened some of the rough edges from Dr. Stockmann's character. Yes, he still is a rebel with a cause but his pride for standing alone is toned down a bit in Herzog's version. In fact, Dr. Stockmann at play's end advises Petra not to look back in anger but forward in hope:

"We must try not to think that way. And in ten years, or fifty. . . it will matter that we did what's right. I'll be gone, you may be gone by then too. But maybe Eilif (Dr. Stockmann's son) will be here to see it. We just have to imagine, that the water will be clean and safe and the truth will be valued ... We just have to imagine."

The acting is terrific! Succession's star Jeremy Strong delivers a top-notch performance as the honest Dr. Thomas Stockmann. Michael Imperioli is convincing as Dr. Stockmann's overbearing brother and mayor of the town. Thomas Jay Ryan is well-cast as the influential Aslaksen, the newspaper printer and chairman of the homeowner's association, which represent the town's small business class and its largest voting bloc. Victoria Pedretti, as Petra Stockmann, is ideal as Dr. Stockmann's strong-minded daughter and dedicated teacher. In fact, there are no weak links in this inspired cast.

While Gold is a director who often introduces unexpected stage business into his productions, the environmental protestors in the audience who interrupted the March 14th preview performance were not planted there by him. That said, they fit right into the warp and woof of Ibsen's drama with its thematic public health concerns. Reportedly, the protestors were escorted out, shouting: "No theater on a dead planet."

Henrik Ibsen's play, An Enemy of the People, was written 142 years ago. But, under Gold's brilliant direction, and a star turn by Strong, this drama still has its sharp socio-political bite.


An Enemy of the People

At Circle in the Square, 235 W 50th St.

Running time: 2 hours with one brief pause

Through June 16