Greedy commercial interests, shortsighted NIMBYs, and a ruthless, conniving bunch of plutocrats a-leaning on the governmental levers—are we talking contemporary politics here, or has local government pretty much always been a cesspool? An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen’s big, noisy broadside of a play about self-serving wankers at all levels of society, argues for the latter conclusion, and it’s an argument rambunctious and disaffected enough to leave the political landscape littered with smoking rubble.
Written more than a century ago and based on actual events, Ibsen’s cautionary tale centers on an idealistic doctor who warns his hometown about contaminated water in its newly famous spa baths: The marketing machine at the Olney Theatre Center has been pushing the play as a “19th-century Erin Brockovich story,” which would be fairly apt if only the play ended more happily for its crusading protagonist. But Ibsen’s Dr. Thomas Stockmann is more the rigid, humorless Ralph Nader type—there’s nothing sexy or sassy about this whistleblower, only a martyr’s willingness to lay waste to systems and institutions—and the uncompromising noisiness of his warning cries earns him a traitor’s ostracism rather than the hero’s thanks he’s immodest enough to imagine.
Enemy can come across like an arrogant political position paper—“there’s a difference between the thoroughbreds and the mongrels,” Stockmann will eventually argue with Ibsen’s voice, positing that the ill-read, sheeplike masses aren’t to be trusted with tough decisions—as well as a purist philosophical manifesto, but modern audiences will be delighted to discover that it’s a crackling exercise in character psychology, too: The smooth-operating aristocrat of a mayor who squares off against Stockmann is the doctor’s less-intellectual brother as well as his enemy, and there’s a bitter fraternal undercurrent of competitiveness and envy on both sides to fuel the plot. The rabble-rousing newspaper editor who initially supports Stockmann’s crusade turns out to be a study in triangulated ambition, and even Stockmann will turn out to be more complicated than he seems at first—a father-in-law, an inheritance, and the creature comforts his municipal-doctor position have funded all get snarled up in his decision-making process.
All these aspects get captured nicely—and Ibsen’s contemptuous outrage comes through loud and clear—in Jim Petosa’s robustly witty production, which moves like a city councilman ramming a backroom deal through a public hearing, and which keeps extending sly come-ons to an audience it hopes will fall into the trap of complicity. Those insinuating invitations—an are-you-with-me glance past the footlights from one character, a surely-you-agree gesture from another in the direction of the seats, a knowing nod that seems to sense a listening presence beyond the newspaper office or the comfortable living room—can seem jarring in the play’s early going. But once the furor spills into the public sphere at the town meeting that anchors Act 2, the self-consciousness of the conceit falls away as the audience finds itself first explicitly courted, then under direct attack—and at risk of being implicated either in the economic ruin of a flourishing town or the personal destruction of a principled man. (A side note: Saturday’s thoroughly middle-class matinee crowd loudly resisted the oily blandishments of the Establishment, which both made me laugh and gave me hope that maybe, finally, a change might be a-comin’ this November.)
Christopher Lane’s sturdy Stockmann is just prig enough, just intemperate and self-righteous and sure enough of his purity, to help that audience understand how his fellow citizens could abandon him so easily. (Think again, if the comparison will bear the weight of a second lean, of the ire Nader inspired when he refused to back out of the 2000 presidential campaign to avoid splitting the liberal vote.) The doctor’s small-town potentate of a brother can be a showboat or a shipwreck of a character, but James Slaughter turns out to be a master navigator. Slaughter, with his military posture and his crisp, upper-crusty accent, has always had a knack for the patrician portrayal, but here he’s created a deliciously well-rounded portrait of a powerful man who’s just smart enough to know he lacks the spark of genius—and just petty enough to indulge the resentment when politics provides the opportunity. There are compact little pleasures, too, in Carter Jahncke’s stalwart sea captain (the only local player divorced enough from parochial concerns to offer unflinching support for Stockmann) and in the convincing worldliness of Lindsey Haynes’ Petra, the daughter who’s neither blindsided nor bereft when the town turns on her family.
Not quite everything about Olney’s staging works as neatly. Julie-Ann Elliott allows the vacillations of Stockmann’s worry-plagued wife to seem like spinelessness sometimes (when really they’re the waverings of a woman struggling to support a husband she knows to be good while quietly panicking over the fate of a family with two young children to feed). Jeffries Thaiss signals that editor’s duplicity perhaps a scene or two too early to keep things really interesting, while Tim Getman’s teetotaling printshop operator is such a broad portrait of the bourgie herd animal that it’s hard to imagine why Stockmann would ever count on his backing. And as Stockmann’s scheming industrialist father-in-law, Richard Pilcher’s been done up in a wig and beard that make him look like the Drosselmeyer in some cut-rate Nutcracker—no, the Mephistopheles in a small-town opera company’s production of Faust. Either way, the look is a little outsize—same goes for James Kronzer’s allegorical set, with its towering doors and its shaky walls papered with tabloid headlines—for a story that doesn’t need the trappings of myth to underscore its timelessness.
It’s that timelessness, though, and the bracing energy of Ibsen’s call to arms, that really matter, and on those points Olney’s production is pretty much a ringing success. When it comes to knowing right and acting right, Stockmann famously proclaims in that deck-clearing speech at the end of the play, “the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.” With a little luck, in this the centennial year of Ibsen’s death, the stubborn strain of individuality that sparks such a fever in An Enemy of the People will prove catching in our own body politic—and more and more of us will find the strength to stand alone before we act together.CP