theater (reviews)

review: an enemy of the people

An Enemy of the People

by Henrik Ibsen
a new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by Doug Hughes

Featuring Boyd Gaines, Richard Thomas
Manhattan Theatre Club Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street
September 27, 2012 (opening) — October 11, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 22, 2012

  • “The first lesson of freedom fighting, never wear your favorite trousers when you go out to fight for truth and justice.” (Dr. Stockman)

Boyd Gaines. Image by Sara Krulwich.

A new English adaptation of Henrik Ibsen‘s 1882 An Enemy of the People (En folkefiende) staged by Doug Hughes yields lovely stage pictures (courtesy of set design by John Lee Beatty) and period appropriate costumes (designed by Catherine Zuber) warmly illuminated to suggest lamp light and sunlight  (designed by Ben Stanton) to highlight Ibsen’s devastating themes of corporate greed and the dangers of majoritarianism. Boyd Gaines as Dr. Stockman, the scientist physician who rails against the corporate interests threatening his late 19th century Norwegian spa town, can be moving amidst the bombast. The heart beat of this story, however, despite a few powerful performances, is muffled within a stultifyingly staid and stolid production.

Yes, Ibsen’s story can be ponderous and in certain hands can feel like a multi-hour rant.  Our earnest Cassandra, Dr. Thomas Stockman (Gaines) is a man of his convictions and often has his head in the sand while his brother Peter (Richard Thomas) is mayor and represents strategic business and is acutely aware of how to play the political game.  Thomas is a man who believes that the simple truth should win the day. He has scientifically determined that there are issues in the water supply supporting the spa business at the center of his small town’s prosperity, and wants to publish his findings despite his family’s dependence on his income as physician to the spa — wife Catherine (Kathleen McNenny), adult daughter Petra (Maite Alina), and two young sons never seen offstage. The newspaper editor Hovstad (John Procaccino) and his printer Aslaksen (Gerry Bamman) can’t wait to publish Stockman’s lengthy report on his findings until they are reminded (as if they hadn’t thought of this before) by the swaggering mayor there would be ramifications — negative results on business at the spa (oh right, it would have to be shut down and repaired) and the funding for needed repairs would come, the Mayor asserts, from taxes on the townspeople (well this isn’t really that logical but alright, a thought that sets motivation and plot points in action).  Allegiances shift, and  Thomas is now alone, after having the lefty-leaning proletariate on his side in the play’s initial scenes. A man against the tide of public opinion who is, in one scene’s shouting match, in fact branded as “an enemy of the people.”

The challenge of this particular production of this politically portentous story is its stolid, stand-and-deliver, ponderously pontificating tone.  And for this director Doug Hughes‘ choices must be held responsible. Standing almost motionless, often in semi-circles, the uniformly solemn often bellowing townspeople tell the story. Several character actors (e..g Gerry Bamman as Aslaksen the printer) sometimes draw generous laughter for character moments dramatically at odds with the rest of the proceedings. Boldface story telling can be fun but in this case the type face wears thin.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 28, 2012)

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