Dangerous Waters

Presenting Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People these days is a rather bold move, particularly in light of the 2006 publication of Steven Sage’s Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, The Plagiarist and the Plot for the Third Reich. In his study, Sage, a former historian at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, makes a persuasive argument that Adolf Hitler was influenced by at least three of Ibsen’s major plays, including An Enemy of the People, and, in essence, lifted many Ibsen themes he deemed sympathetic in order to play out his madness.

In An Enemy of the People, a scientist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, discovers that the water supply of his community’s spa baths, an industry the town is literally banking on for its prosperity, is polluted by harmful bacteria. Only a radical rebuilding of the facilities will prevent people from becoming ill.

Politically naïve, Dr. Stockmann assumes that the town’s authorities, including his own brother, the mayor, will thank him for his efforts. Instead, the mayor, and eventually the local newspaper and townspeople, vilify him when they find out just how long the repairs will take and how much they will cost. The mayor orchestrates a campaign against his brother, denying the severity of the danger, and questioning his true motives.

Of course, Dr. Stockmann is correct. We empathize with his quest for the truth. We roll our eyes at the ridiculousness of the influential town leaders and with the townsfolk, fearfully siding with local authority rather than daring to make waves.

Dr. Stockmann, though, filled with rage and self-righteousness, goes way too far later in the play, advocating that those who disagree with him, the spineless “solid majority,” as he puts it, are no better than mongrels and should be wiped out like vermin. He likens himself to a pure-bred poodle and the majority to stupid mutts in need of training. Sage points out that this is racism by current standards (other passages are grossly misogynistic by today’s standards) and argues that Hitler appropriated and perverted Ibsen’s themes, perhaps even identifying to some degree with the persecuted and alienated Stockmann.

I searched vainly through the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s program for some allusion to the dubiousness of some of Dr. Stockmann’s own beliefs but found nothing but praise for the character. While there is much to recommend in An Enemy of the People, Arthur Miller, for one, knew that this play needed explication for contemporary audiences. An Enemy of the People is a flawed and rushed work, yet, somewhat disconcertingly, the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble doesn’t appear to acknowledge this, offering up Dr. Stockmann with an entirely straight face.

The production itself, however, is quite solid. John Lenartz, sweating and hyper-animated, nails the character of Dr. Stockmann, whose occasional fits of near-hysteria make us doubt his full sanity. Michael Surabian plays a superb Mr. Alsaken, the timid chairman of the local property owners group, who urges, to the point of impotence, “moderation” in provoking local government officials. And Joseph J. Menino is thoroughly convincing as the uptight and forbidding mayor, determined to destroy his brother’s career and family rather than see the town suffer economically.

Maruti Evans’ scenic design—a row of brightly painted houses with a screen of clouds in the background--is simple yet splendid, simulating a street in a small Norwegian town. Suzanne Chesney’s costume design is well-researched and evocative. David Nelson’s original composition for this production adds appropriately ominous overtones, particularly in combination with Evans’ pre-show lighting. Young Dmitri Friendenberg, who plays Stockmann’s son, Eilif, provides an added bonus with his cello, performing haunting pieces between some of the acts.

The 19th Century Connelly Theatre, with its proscenium arch and tin ceiling, is an ideal venue for this play, first published in 1882. Despite some of the cringe-inducing speeches of Dr. Stockmann, this play is worth seeing as a period piece. Ably directed by Amy Wagner, it's a straightforward production with all the dialogue, good and bad, and all the considerable warts, left intact. I suspect it is not unlike the production which late 19th century audiences witnessed and that, in and of itself, makes seeing this play a worthwhile endeavor.

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