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Admit it: You felt just the tiniest bit hopeful at the end of An Inconvenient Truth. Never mind the vested interests—here was a passionate voice clearly laying out the stakes and trumpeting a call to action. Who wouldn’t respond?
Now comes Mr. Ibsen, for the second time in as many months, to chastise you for your naiveté. If hope really is a thing with feathers, then by the end of Kjetil Bang-Hansen’s bleaker-than-winter production of An Enemy of the People, hope’s flown south.
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If you caught the Olney Theatre Center production that opened in late July—it’s the Ibsen centenary, remember, and the theatrical landscape is awash in Heddas and Doll’s Houses and Rosmersholms and the like—you’ll remember An Enemy’s story clearly enough: A resort-town doctor discovers deadly contamination in the water that feeds the burg’s expensive new health spa, and his virtuous insistence on alerting the public earns him the wrath first of the money-men, led by his political-animal brother, and then of the easily led bourgeoisie, which backs him initially but backs off as soon as it senses a threat to its pocketbook. The play’s a fierce attack on party politics and self-interested timidity, yes, but it’s also a study of a terribly flawed hero—Thomas Stockmann’s righteousness and rigidity don’t help his cause much—and Bang-Hansen’s production focuses mercilessly on the latter, paring away at Ibsen’s text, cutting generous gestures and supportive familial moments, progressively alienating the would-be-good doctor until that famous closing pronouncement about “he who stands most alone” sounds less like defiance than despair.
It’s an intelligent read on the play, and the Stockmann at its center (Joseph Urla, making an accomplished Shakespeare Theatre Company debut) a convincingly complex creature, by turns infuriatingly naive and thrillingly brave. Bang-Hansen coaches Urla and other crucial players through a series of wonderfully discovered, immediately lived decisions—watch Stockmann and his brother choose which of each other’s buttons to push, for instance, or mark the internal hesitation as Derek Lucci’s opportunistic newspaper editor weighs whether to reveal his passion for Stockmann’s schoolteacher daughter (Samantha Soule). And he extracts a fantastically chilly performance from Lansburgh favorite Philip Goodwin, who’s stashed his trademark soulfulness somewhere in the wings and shrugged on a crisp, caustic air along with the patrician Peter Stockmann’s handsome overcoat: It’s a peremptory, authoritarian turn, and one to relish.
There’s plenty of the humor too many directors miss in this play: “You should never have your best trousers on when you go out fighting for truth and freedom,” drawls Urla’s Stockmann, rather the worse for wear after his address to a public meeting ends in a riot. And there’s plenty of contemporary resonance for anyone who’s ever wondered about the trans fats in our food supply or the profit motive that keeps our pharmaceuticals industry busy making expensive digestive remedies rather than cheap antibiotics—though in our resolutely red-and-blue America, Washington audiences will be neither surprised nor overjoyed about the ironies: “It’s probably no better in the ‘free’ West,” Stockmann muses sourly, even as he ponders an escape in the direction of our shoreline. “There they have epidemics of solid majorities and liberal blocs of opinion and all the other devilments as well…. [B]ut they don’t go in for slow torture, they don’t clamp a free soul in a vise as they do here.”
Yet despite Bang-Hansen’s concerted efforts to set stakes high, his production seems neither shatteringly epic nor heartbreakingly human. (Or maybe it’s because of some of those efforts: One early domestic tableau, clearly meant to capture the comfortable lifestyle Stockmann risks with his challenge to the status quo, might as well have Norman Rockwell’s signature scrawled at the bottom, so twee and mawkish is the picture it presents.) The town-meeting sequence, staged and aggressively sound-designed to incorporate the Lansburgh audience, will likewise fall flat as long as the well-behaved STC subscribership refuses (as it did on press night) to set aside its theater-church manners and talk back to the play. And a gambit meant to punctuate the story’s bleak conclusion proves anticlimactic instead: A set piece spins away, leaving Stockmann physically as well as psychologically isolated, while his daughter stares with something like shellshock at the iron octopus of water-piping that dominates the horizon beyond their parlor windows.
But the spin is a slow and creaky one, and the life-unmoored effect not emphatic enough to justify the long moment it takes to accomplish—during which the audience sits befuddled, wondering what’s happening with a play it’s pretty sure has just ended. Maybe Bang-Hansen means to leave his audience unsteady and uncertain; me, he just left unsatisfied.CP