THEATER: “An Enemy of the People” at Barrington Stage, a Collision of Fire and Ice Onstage [Berkshire on Stage]
Theater review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray
Gail M. Burns: Tragically, An Enemy of the People, a tale of the battle between the truth and those who would manipulate or stifle it for their own gain, is as relevant today as when Henrik Ibsen penned En folkefiende in 1882 in response to the public attacks on his play Ghosts, and in 1950 when Arthur Miller adapted it as a response to the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. It is all too easy to draw parallels to the key concerns of today.
Larry Murray: I agree, Gail, and rarely do we see theater productions that so perfectly capture the temper of our times from a distance of 65 or 130 years. I think a large part of the reason that An Enemy of the People works so well is the excellence of every aspect of the Barrington Stage Company production in Pittsfield. Director Julianne Boyd has been doing these issue plays for many years now, and has yet to have one that has misfired. Her sense of historical importance combines with some pretty innovative direction to bring a big, long, grey play like this into sharp focus. The fourteen actors – drawn as much from this region as from New York – are uniformly superb.
Gail: The plot is painfully simple. In a town struggling to revive its economy after the Second World War, much money and many hopes have been pinned on the healing spa waters of Kirsten Springs and a new resort has been developed to capture the tourist market. The local doctor, Thomas Stockmann (Steve Hendrickson), concerned over a rash of illness among the Springs early patrons, has had the water analyzed and discovered that it is, in fact, contaminated by the run-off from the tannery upstream – a business that has been in his wife’s family for generations and is currently owned by his ecentric father-in-law, Morten Kiil (Glenn Barrett). Dr. Stockmann’s brother, Peter (Patrick Husted), is the Mayor, and they both sit on the board of directors of the resort. Dr. Stockmann has a happy family life with his wife Catherine (Dee Nelson), 20-something daughter Petra (Katya Stepanov), and two school-age sons Morten (Noah Bailey) and Ejlif (Joey Labrasca). They are well liked in the community and in the first scene the family is entertaining Aslaksen (Jack Wetherall), the publisher of the local paper, its young editor Hovstad (Scott Drummond) and his assistant, Billing (Christopher Hirsh), along with an elderly neighbor, Captain Horster (Don Paul Shannon), at dinner when the water analysis report arrives from the lab.
At first everyone hails Dr. Stockmann as a hero for catching this important information on time. But as the economic impact of this discovery becomes clear – the Mayor goes about making that impact starkly real to all concerned – the worm turns and by the opening of the second act Dr. Stockmann is not even allowed to speak at a public meeting he has called, held in the Captain’s home because no one in town will rent him a hall. Stockmann is officially declared An Enemy of the People, and the play concludes with he and his family sheltering behind their living room couch, as a mob roars outside their home and hurls rocks through their windows, determined to stick together and fight for the truth.
Larry: The tension that built during the opening of the second act where the point of the play all melds together, builds the excitement of the citizens into a frenzy, and you can feel it build all around you as the ensemble brings the action of the mob into the midst of the audience. It is a passionately breathtaking example of full-tilt theatrical magic at work. And it has to be the most memorable 15 minutes of theater I have seen this year. It’s an all-out assault on the truth by the classic powers-that-be which is at the heart of this great human story.