Saturday, October 22, 2011
"An Enemy of the People" at Playhouse on Park a perfect political play
WEST HARTFORD — What better show to see during this political season than the ultimate political play, “An Enemy of the People,” at Playhouse on Park.
Originally written by Henrik Ibsen in 1882, this play was adapted in 1950 by Arthur Miller after his “Death of a Salesman” and before writing “The Crucible,” during an incredibly prolific time in his career.
Somehow Miller managed to maintain the Norwegian sensibility of this play while at the same time making it timely and fascinating.
“An Enemy of the People” is set in a provincial Norwegian seaside town that has experienced a recent boon thanks to a newly created health spa called Kirsten Springs.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Jeremiah Wiggins), a man well liked in the community, discovers that the waters at the spring are being polluted by a tannery up river and are actually killing people.
His brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (Michael McKenzie), is the chairman of the board of Kirsten Springs, realizes that this news will cause economic devastation, while the doctor naively believes he will be hailed as a hero by the town for his discovery.
Dr. Stockmann goes to the newspapers with the news and they at first want to print the information until they realize that it will hurt their circulation.
There is no question that the water is contaminated, but the mayor, with brilliant, forceful, and persuasive language, is able to convince the majority that his brother’s claims shouldn’t even be heard.
McKenzie’s portrayal as mayor is absolutely mesmerizing, while Wiggins is constant and wonderful as the absent-minded professor who doesn’t understand the economic implications of his discovery until it is spelled out to him by his older brother.
The rest of the play is an effort by those in power, including the duplicitous, self-serving newspapermen, to get the good doctor to compromise.
He refuses to comply, and in short order Dr. Stockmann loses everything, including his home, the safety and welfare of his children, his livelihood, and his wife’s inheritance, and is officially labeled “An Enemy of the People” by the community.
Evidently Ibsen reserved a special hatred toward newspapers and moderates, because the press skewered his previous play, “Ghost,” with its reference to the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis — so this play was in part his revenge on them.
Miller trimmed out the social Darwinism references from the original, tightened the story, and focusing on the political implications of duplicity by a few and the self-serving mob mentality of the majority.
It is almost the mirror opposite to Miller’s next play, “The Crucible.” There the majority believes that the teenage girls have seen witches, while in “An Enemy of the People” the masses refuse to hear the doctor’s proof of poisoned water.
At one point Dr. Stockmann suggests to his wife, Catherine (Coleen Sciacca), that they start a new life in North America, saying that in a country so large there has to be room enough for other opinions, but then decides that it probably won’t be any different there.
Sciacca does the best she can with an underwritten part. I had difficulty determining when and why she switches her allegiance from arguing against her husband to standing behind him.
Catherine’s adoptive father, Morton Kiil, (an expansive, jovial Brock Putnam) is a mysterious figure whose source of wealth isn’t revealed until the end, which serves as a plot device, but seems unlikely.
Most of the costumes work well, designed by Production Designer Randall Parsons who is also the set and lighting designer, but Sciacca’s pink dress is ill-fitting and newspaperman Hovstad (Aaron Barcelo) shouldn’t be wearing Dockers.
Directed with pace and clarity by Kyle Fabel, “An Enemy of the People” feels just as relevant, powerful, and devastating today as it ever was.