By Karen Isaacs
What happens when a town is faced with news that impacts public health but ALSO impacts the town’s economy? Certainly we have seen this dilemma faced by numerous towns and cities in the United States in the last decades: Polluted ground water, factories spewing toxic chemicals, air pollution and more. Do the citizens take the economic hit and fix the problem which may result in unemployment, increased taxes and health dangers OR do they minimize the problem, take a few measures and delay the reckoning.
It is amazing that Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote about that kind of problem over 130 years age, in his play Enemy of the People. This fall the Pearl Theatre Company, off-Broadway is presenting a new adaptation of the play, called Public Enemy. The adaptation is written by David Harrower who wrote the searing and disturbing Blackbird. He’s condensed the play to a tight 90 minutes with no intermission, it is staged as a contemporary piece.
Dr. Stockmann and his family have returned to their Norwegian home town after spending a number of economically deprived years in a desolate northern town. Now he is the medical director of the town and the nearby spa which with its therapeutic waters has brought economic prosperity. He got the job with the help of his brother, Peter, the Mayor. But Stockmann is one who likes to question authority and he and the Mayor are often at odds; partly sibling rivalry and partly over the conflict between the political and the ideal.
Stockmann has learned that the waters in the spa are seriously polluted; in part from the run off of a tannery north of town owned by his father-in-law. The local radical newspaperman, Hovstad, is eager to bring the mayor down by printing the results. Horvstad, Billing (an editor) and Aslasken, the printer and proclaimed leader of the small business people all want to expose the corruption and secrecy of the government. They are ready to print Stockmann’s report when the Mayor enters. He questions the validity of the report and the extreme measures it would take to remedy the situation: close down the spa for at least one year and spend an enormous amount of money to rebuild the water flow. He points out how this would hurt the town and the small business people; unemployment, higher taxes and more.
Suddenly Stockmann’s allies rethink their positions deciding that a milder remedy will suffice. Stockmann decides to hold a public meeting to tell the entire town of his findings but the meeting is sabotaged. Still, he is able to deliver an impassioned plea that goes well beyond the issue of the spa. He goes on about corruption, education, economics and more. The play ends with the windows in his house smashed by the angry public, his daughter (a school teacher) fired, his landlord evicting them and, of course, losing his job. But despite his daughter’s recommendation that they leave the town, he is determined to stay and do what is right even if that makes him the enemy.
In reducing this play from five acts and about 2½ hours to a taut 90 minutes, Harrower has necessarily removed some of the subtleties. Stockmann seems more like a fanatic than a man of science and the shifts in the views of his initial supporters seem to abrupt.
Director Hal Brooks and his cast have done all they can to create fully developed characters. Jimonn Cole is an impassioned Stockmann; his harangue of the townspeople at the meeting displays a frustration and even rage, but at other times he appears overly passive and naïve. Nilaja Sun as the underwritten role of his wife; there is not much in the script to work. She is eclipsed by her daughter, Petra, played by Arielle Goldman. But these two roles plus the roles of the two sons, are almost forgettable. It’s not due to the actors but the condensing of the script.
This play depends on Cole as Stockmann and Guisseppe Jones as his brother, the Mayor. These are the characters central to the conflict and both do a good job, mining the fact that the conflict is on several levels. Secondarily, it focuses on Hovstad, the editor and Aslasken as the printer. Both Robbie Tann (Hovstad) and John Keating (Aslasken) do a good job with their roles.
Harry Feiner has created a realistic Nordic style modern house that transforms smoothly to an office and a meeting hall. Marika Kent’s lighting design helps and does the sound design by Jane Shaw.
Viewing this play reminds one more of a Brecht work – characters created only to represent a point of view and polemical talk – than Ibsen.
Public Enemy is at the Pearl Theatre, 555 W. 42nd St., New York through Nov. 6. For tickets visit The Pearl.