Review: “An Enemy of the People”

Philip Earl Johnson (Thomas Stockmann) and Scott Jaeck (Peter Stockmann) in “An Enemy of the People” now playing at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., through April 15. – Liz Lauren

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: thrrough April 15
Tickets: $25-$80
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Goodman Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” comes across as a combination call to action and cry of despair.

Based on Eleanor Marx-Aveling’s late-Victorian translation, director Robert Falls’ darkly tragicomic adaptation infuses the 1882 drama with thoroughly contemporary references and phrases (“fake news,” “deplorables,” etc.), so that no one can miss the parallels to our own time, even if water crises like the one in Flint, Michigan don’t immediately spring to mind.

But “An Enemy” presents a quandary because even the ostensible hero, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Philip Earl Johnson), is flawed and doesn’t emerge free of culpability. He’s not a hypocrite with a self-serving agenda like the townspeople who at first support and then oppose him, but his unflinching conviction that he is right and they are wrong drives him to counterproductive behavior that makes him his own worst enemy. In Falls’ hands, the conflict also unfolds as a virulent case of sibling rivalry with the main antagonist being the doctor’s older brother, town mayor Peter Stockmann (Scott Jaeck).

The issue is the contamination of the public baths, which are responsible for the town’s prosperity. Dr. Stockmann, the spa’s chief medical officer, originally suggested the project but then moved north, so it wasn’t completed to his specifications. Recently returned to his home town, he’s had the water tested and is waiting for the results when the play opens. They’re delivered by his schoolteacher daughter, Petra (Rebecca Hurd), during a dinner party he and his pregnant second wife Katherine (Lanise Antoine Shelley) are having for Hovstad (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez), editor of the local “radical” newspaper, and his assistant, Billing (Jesse Bhamrah).

The test results confirm Dr. Stockmann’s suspicions: The spa is a cesspool of toxic bacteria, which is why some tourists have been getting sick. In Johnson’s increasingly urgent and intense performance, the doctor is almost elated by this news. He’s convinced he’ll be congratulated for his discovery, even though the baths will have to be closed down and reconstructed.

Hovstad’s reaction seems to bear him out. He promises to publish the findings and, indeed, wants to use them as a springboard to attack the corruption of the local government. More cautious support comes from Aslaksen (Allen Gilmore), the paper’s printer and head of the local small business association. Morton Kiil (David Darlow), Katherine’s cantankerous father, thinks the whole thing is a joke but is delighted someone will oppose the powers that be.

The Mayor, however, urges his brother not to publish the findings, and when Dr. Stockmann refuses to be told what to do, uses his authority to convince Hovstad and Aslaksen to change their positions. He argues, among other things, that closing the spa will be prohibitively expensive, necessitating a big increase in taxes, and ruining the town’s tourism-based economy. He even questions the science of Dr. Stockmann’s report, offering alternative facts. Selfish motives of the other men also emerge; Hovstad, for example, admits to Petra—much to her disgust—that he was only backing her father because of his romantic interest in her.

Dr. Stockmann, incensed by this turn of events, declares he doesn’t need any of them and calls a town meeting to reveal the truth. However, the Mayor and Aslaksen, voted chairman for the evening, hijack the proceedings and pass a motion preventing him from talking about the baths. Pushed to extremes, the doctor unleashes a furious, sarcastic tirade condemning the majority for always being wrong and accusing them of being stupid, sheep, cretins, and a whole lot worse, “no offense intended, ” as he says repeatedly. Between their anger and comments from a drunk (Larry Neumann, Jr.), the meeting gets out of hand he’s declared “an enemy of the people.”

Next day, Dr. Stockmann’s house has been stoned, misfortunes pile up, and he and his family contemplate moving out of town. His daughter is fired from her job, and he is from his when he still won’t accede to the Mayor’s demand to retract his assertions about the spa. His father-in-law Kiil, also known as “the Badger,” lands the most severe blow. Stockmann had singled out his tanneries as the worst polluters, and he concocts a scheme whereby the future of the doctor’s family depends on him reversing his position. Adding insult to injury, the others believe that he was in it for himself all along, just like them.

The play ends with the doctor determined to stay, come what may, and convinced that he’s strongest when he stands alone. But we can’t help seeing him as a man undone by his own hubris and an elitist who even pushes away his daughter and wife, the only two who have stood by him all along.

Jaeck’s blustery, pompous, stocky Mayor Peter Stockmann makes a fine foil to Johnson as the wiry, determined Thomas, and Shelley is most sympathetic as Katherine, the steadfast voice of reason. The rest of the capable ensemble ranges from Hurd’s spirited Petra to Darlow’s insidious Kiil, as well as the dozens of black-clad people assembled just for the town meeting.

Falls’ staging is partly rooted in the 19th century but also removed from it. Todd Rosenthal’s set design features a mix of furniture, from a Victorian settee to a 1950s-style brushed-metal lamp, as well as a large slanting skylight that shifts from overhead in the Stockmann house to a wall of windows in the newspaper office. Similarly, Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes mix and match periods, styles, patterns, and colors. Robert Wierzel’s lighting and Richard Woodbury’s original music and sound design complete a picture that makes a statement even if it’s a bit confusing.

I’m not sure how Ibsen intended us to see Dr. Stockmann, but I left Goodman’s “An Enemy of the People” thinking there must have been a way for him to achieve his goals without compromising his principles if only……….