Theatre Review: OSU Theatre’s An Enemy of the People Puts a New Coat of Paint on a Tragically Timeless Story
Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, published in 1882, is an anguished look at the cost of standing outside society to make a stand for what someone believes in, the subtle ways in which we’re all infected by hypocrisy, and the uneasy shifting of alliances of blood and friendship. It’s as important, vital, and gut-churning today as it’s ever been and it’s been given a nimble, vibrant revival by OSU Theatre under the direction of Lesley Ferris using Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s lithe 2012 adaptation.
The play is set in a series of tiny rooms around a Scandinavian tourist town whose economy orbits around their therapeutic baths. We meet Catherine Stockmann (Ambre Shoneff) as a series of town intellectuals including the town newspaper (The People’s Messenger) editor Hovstad (AJ Wright), his sub-editor Billing (Joe Kopyt), and a sailor Captain Horster (Isaiah Johnson), arrive at their family’s home for an informal salon/drinking party to discuss the issues of the day. While they wait the arrival of her husband, Thomas Stockmann (Zack Meyer) the door is darkened by his brother, Peter (Blake Edwards), the mayor. As Dr. Stockmann finally arrives home, a ball of nervous energy, we see long-standing tensions rise between he and his brother, amidst relatively light-hearted banter occasionally weighted with the ballast of talk about abstract comments about morality, aided by the arrival of the Stockmanns grown daughter Petra (Mandy Mitchell), a school teacher.
Shortly thereafter, the source of the nervousness becomes apparent: Stockmann’s discovered that the baths are not only not restorative, they’re actually harming people. There is specific discussion of a typhoid outbreak but soon the baths are viewed as a more literal cancer on the town and the countryside, soaking up the corruption of politicians (who rejected Dr. Stockmann’s earlier advice to build the baths with pipes placed higher and routed differently) and the sins of the previous generations (by way of the tanneries who are directly polluting the water and soil). The doctor is certain he’ll be viewed as a hero and high on I-told-you-so hubris so rushes to the newspaper to have his report printed the next day as well as roping in the printer Aslaken (Gabriel Simms) who also heads the Property Owners Association and his father-in-law Morten Kill (Benito Lara).
As his brother the mayor tries to offer compromises that seem clear to make everyone else sick, Stockmann watches his hopes of being viewed as a hero crack and curdle. In denying Aslaken’s nudgings toward moderation, he burns that bridge. Morten Kill realizes the “fact” of his tannery being the worst of the polluters makes a mockery out of everything he and three generations before him worked to build. It doesn’t take much, if any, disinformation to make people less concerned with the health of tourists and outsiders when an economy could be crippled taking food out of their own children’s mouths. And it’s as understandable how they rise to hate the man who presents these decisions in black and white strokes and ignores their humanity as it is understandable how the mix of ego and reason pushes Dr. Stockmann to entrench further even at his own children’s risk and his family’s world burns around them (in an astonishingly literal, slow-motion ballet of destruction that’s one of the most striking things I’ve seen on a stage all year).
An Enemy of the People uses Stockmann as a thinly veiled stand-in for Ibsen, a white-hot rebuke to the detractors of his earlier masterpiece Ghosts and it’s no surprise Stockmann is one of the richest male leads in the theatrical canon. Zack Meyer does a fantastic job as the hero who’s self-aware enough to know how much he’s hurting the people he knows but all-seeing enough to stay focused on the greater good, whose hypocrisies are minor compared to the other men. Blake Edwards’ Peter, as his main adversary, is a masterful portrait of the other side of that coin, an almost identical personality but with pragmatism as his tin god instead of reason.
Wright and Kopyt’s Hovstad and Billing are a delightfully weaselly pair, on the verge of giving lie to Mencken’s line about going broke underestimating the public. The greatest rage from Ibsen’s pen in this work is reserved for the press – there’s an understanding that being The People’s Messenger means a combination of snake oil sales and sucking up, telling the mob what they want to hear while still thinking you’re better than they are and cowering under the almighty dollar.
Shoneff and Mitchell do a stunning job, with Shoneff as the rock and Mitchell as the light, making real characters out of a play that (while helped in the adaptation some) takes a very dim view of women in general. Mitchell’s interaction with Hovstad when their paths diverge is electrifying even as I cringed all the way down. The adaptation and direction also help to even this out in the climactic public meeting by placing the townspeople directly in the audience and making several of the strongest, unrelenting voices women (most notably Natalie Davis and Kelsey Catherine Frustere), as a trick it’s breathtaking and helps in some small way to redress the imbalance in the text. A less successful way to show women as the underclass being ground down by the other decision making is the silent chorus of women who appear on the stage in what feels like arbitrary times, usually accompanied by an underlining effect of running water that everything else in this production is too good for.
The adaptation of the play is a very loud, bold colors, knives out at all times read on the play. That volume makes the line between humor and tragedy even harder to walk, but the cast with a couple exceptions of going too broad handle this very well. And the direction keeps an emotional reality grounded without slipping into some soggy realism that might have sunk the metaphorical elements. Ferris’ finely tuned direction is aided greatly by Sarah Fickling’s costumes and Joshua Quinlan’s jaw-dropping set designs – walls that (with the aid of lighting designer Andy Baker) are opaque one minute and transparent the next help underscore how much of life is lived in little boxes and simultaneously create the impression of a wider, greater world all around. It’s the kind of theatre magic that makes jaws drop in the service of the heart of the text, not by selling it out.
While it’s not a perfect production, Lesley Ferris, OSU Theatre, and the cast are to be commended for reminding the world of this story that desperately needs told. It’s a complicated, difficult script given complicated, rich, intense life. A classic refurbished with the kind of care it needs to again shake you by the lapels.
An Enemy of the People runs through Sunday, November 15, with performances at 7:30pm on Thursday-Saturday and 3:30pm on Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit https://theatre.osu.edu/events/enemy-people