By Karen Isaacs
Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, now at the Yale Rep through Saturday, Oct. 28 is one of the four great realistic dramas he wrote between 1879 and 1890. They include the better known A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler as well as Ghosts. These drama dealt with real people dealing with social issues that still reverberate today.
Yet, the show is relevant to today. It focuses on the rejection of scientific fact, the willingness to put economic benefit over the environment and people’s health and the public’s ability to be easily swayed. Could have been ripped out of the headlines.
Unfortunately, this production diminishes these issues rather than illuminates them.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann, played overly manic by Reg Rogers, has returned to his home town and is the medical director of the recently created health spa/baths in this small coastal Norwegian town. It has proved to be a huge success attracting tourists from throughout Norway and helping the local economy. It’s also helped Stockmann as well; he had spent years in near poverty in a very small, isolated village.
His return to the town was partly engineered by his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann.
But as the play opens, Thomas is anxiously awaiting a letter as various local people gather in his drawing room. They include the young newspaper editor who wants to overthrow the establishment and the older people running the town; the young assistant on the paper; as well as Aslaksen who is the printer/typesetter and is a leader of the small merchants and home owners in the town. “Moderation” is his key word.
Tthe Mayor also drops in and it is clear that there is some between the brothers. Thomas may have suggested the baths, but Peter wants some of the credit for their actual construction and success.
When the letter arrives, Thomas seems surprisingly happy with the news. Some water samples he had sent to Christiana (now Oslo) to be tested have revealed that his hunch is correct: the waters in the baths are seriously polluted and are causing disease to the visitors. He can barely control himself, quickly outlining the problem to the guests, who all pledge their support.
He is sure that his brother, the Mayor, will immediately take the necessary steps which include shutting the spa down and totally redoing the pipes that bring the water to it. An added complication is that the main source of the pollution is the plant owned by the father of Thomas’ wife.
But as he counts on the editor and Aslaksen for support, the Mayor is quietly undermining him. To redo the pipes and eliminate the contaminated water would require shutting the spa down for a year or more, plus the outlay of large amounts of money. Conveniently the shareholders in the baths would not pay the bill; the taxpayers would. With the reduced tourism, the businessmen would see profits go down and real estate values as well. The Mayor even points out that neighboring towns might build their own baths.
Quickly the tide turns. All those who supported him, with the exception of Captain Horster, a ship’s captain, desert him. They are willing to question the science behind the test results, considering it conjecture or exaggerated. Certainly more moderate measures can ameliorate the problem with no need of alerting the public, shutting the baths, or raising taxes.
As his supporters slip away, Thomas becomes more and more adamant, unwilling to consider even the slightest deviation from his ideas. With the help of Captain Horster, he schedules a meeting (at the Captain’s house) to explain his ideas, but the town leaders take it over. Eventually he does speak, but not about the pollution of the baths, but what he views is the moral pollution overtaking the country. He doesn’t blame it on the leaders but on what he calls “the compact majority” who are at fault. He says that the majority never has right on its side; the masses poison the moral values.
The play ends with Thomas defiant though he has lost everything. His fellow citizens have broken the windows to his house, he has been fired from his job, his daughter has been fired from her teaching position, and his sons have been asked to leave school. Even the inheritance that his wife and children would receive from her father, has disappeared. Yet rather than leave for America, the curtain ends with him determined to fight on.
One of the puzzling aspects of this play is Ibsen’s point of view. He has Thomas say that truths are changeable, and that ideas of morals and values are not absolute. Thomas’s words could be construed to endorse an oligarchy of the educated.
But Ibsen is also clearly talking about the duty of professionals, the balance between economic well-being and doing good, the responsibility for honest communication (the visitors to the baths should know) and even the destruction of the environment. The waters have been polluted by run-off from the mines up-stream, which also provide an economic benefit.
Director James Bundy’s vision of this drama about an idealistic but rash man and his downfall seems to be that it is a somewhat raucous physical comedy. Laughter erupted from the audience in some of the most dramatic moments, somewhat like laughing as Othello strangles Desdemona.
He has also decided to stress the theatrical illusions of the play. The set allows us to see into the wings of stage; so we can see actors waiting for the cues, stage personnel handing them props, etc. Instead of letting us immerse ourselves in the dilemma facing Thomas and his family, and the town, we are constantly aware that this is just make believe. Movement and dance has also been introduced for no obvious purpose.
The acting styles are also inconsistent. Some characters are played with minimal emotion or affect, seemingly uninterested in what is going on. This is particularly true of Setareki Wainiqolo who plays the ship captain, Captain Horster, the lone townsperson who is on Thomas’ side by the final curtain. But even Thomas’s wife, Catherine, played Joey Parsons seems devoid of most emotion.
Reg Rogers plays Dr. Stockmann in such an exuberant manner that as the play progress and he becomes more and more upset, determined and fanatical, he has no room to escalate his acting style. He becomes more and more hyper until you wonder if he will just collapse. He seems on the verge of a total breakdown. This grandiosity (at the beginning he wonders if the town will throw him a parade to reward him) makes him a laughable character rather than a man having his ideals crushed.
Enrico Colantoni plays the Mayor as the moderate man who considers all the angles before making a move. But he also does a good job of showing the sibling rivalry between the brothers. The Mayor is well aware that Thomas views him as stupid.
Petra, the doctor’s daughter played by Stephanie Machado manages to show us her devotion to her father and his ideals. She too wants to stay and fight.
As the trio of men who accept the Doctor’s hospitality, egg him on and then turn against him, each plays a specific type. Hovstad, the newspaper editor played by Bobby Roman, is the young firebrand who will switch sides when needed; Billing, his assistant, played by Ben Anderson, seems simply a follower. Aslaksen, played by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, is the “careful” man who is willing to make waves as long as no one gets water in the face. Henderson does the best job of the three in conveying his natural conservatism.
Jarlath Conroy plays Thomas’ father-in-law, the owner of the mill that is one of the sources of the pollution in a way that is much too soft at the beginning. He too has his motives to both back Thomas and later to turn away.
The set by Emona Stoykova, rotates for no apparent purpose. The sides show the off-stage areas which was undoubtedly requested by Bundy. The lighting by Krista Smith is unobtrusive. Sophia Choi has given us period costumes.
An Enemy of the People is a fascinating play that is relevant in so many ways to our 21st century world – even more so in the last year – that deserves a production that encourages discussion and thought, not laughter.
It is at the University Theater of the Yale Rep, 222 York Street, through Saturday, Oct. 28. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publication Weeklies and zip06.com