We all like to think we’d do what is right when faced with a situation involving safety, but Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People puts forth a situation that has dire consequences no matter the decision. Though first performed in 1882 and set in a coastal Norwegian town, this story about a doctor standing up to show that the lucrative tourist-heavy town baths are cesspools of disease has a lot to say about commerce and health even today in the fine production being performed by the Department of Theatre at The Ohio State University.
Zach Meyer plays Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the man who has proof that the town baths are toxic, with a kind of verve that is admirable. Mr. Meyer is jovial and likable at the beginning, and he is terrific at expressing confusion that others don’t see the correct course of action to take – or even that there is an option. His Dr. Stockmann isn’t afraid to stand alone, even when his wife and some friends have their doubts. Mr. Meyer doesn’t fall into coming off like a sanctimonious martyr, a danger in this material; he’s a doctor and a man of science and wealth – but he’s also quite human and sensitive to the health of the community.
Mr. Meyer is paired against Blake Edwards as Peter Stockmann, the brother who wants to silence Dr. Stockmann’s report as closing the baths would mean financial ruin for the town. Mr. Edwards has some of the best lines in the piece, and so many are delivered with fire and conviction. “The world doesn’t revolve around your science,” he snarls to his brother, “It’s about money!” Mr. Edwards ostensibly plays the villain of the piece, but he isn’t all bad, really. He makes plenty of good points, even though they are morally and ethically questionable. What he says isn’t far off from what I have heard during some of our presidential debates. Mr. Edwards walks and talks with real authority, and one can understand why he tends to get his way. When his brother asks him how he expects the public to respond if he recants his statements as requested, Mr. Edwards responds simply, “The public is like a woman: fickle.” The audience groans, but don’t we all know people similarly sexist?
Aside from the excellent performances by Mr. Meyer and Mr. Edwards, the impressive set by Joshua Quinlan is reason enough to see the show. Constructed of high panels that zigzag across the stage to represent doorways and walls within the Stockmann home, the set is a real beauty, the panels translucent depending on the lighting to allow us to see action going on in other rooms. Lighting designer Andy Baker is also to be commended for illuminating just the rights spots to direct our attention to important action happening in other areas of the sprawling stage.
Director Lesley Ferris does a marvelous job of taking a play written over a hundred years ago and making it feel relevant in today’s world (in no small part aided in this adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, with dialogue that sounds current but not out of character with the setting). Ms. Ferris ingeniously even transports the audience at the beginning of the second act into being a part of the action as part of the stage descends and the audience is plunged into a town hall meeting. Planted actors in the audience stand up and shout as part of the play, and it’s a thrilling moment that serves to engage spectators environmentally in an unexpected way.
The only part of this production that rubbed me the wrong way was the use of a chorus of women that often appear in shadow around the set or dimly lit behind scrims. All they do is stand and stare clad in rags, and their presence is not acknowledged. It feels too “arty” to me to have this chorus of women (that’s how they are billed in the program) hiding under chairs and standing in corners, especially during the final scene. Perhaps they are representing the oppressed workers that are being made to suffer by working at the town baths, or do they represent the poverty of the past and the impending future? None of it was clear, and perhaps it shouldn’t be – but in a play with so many strengths and impassioned scenes, this kind of interpretive element I found distracting.
An Enemy of the People is the kind of play – and this the kind of production – that inspires debate and discussion. So much of it is relevant today, and we can see techniques of public discourse and the twisting of facts demonstrated here going on in our current political battles. That such a talented group of students are a part of such a thought provoking production – one that doesn’t attempt to update the source with cell phones and other anachronisms – gives me hope for the future of theatre.
***/ out of ****
An Enemy of the People continues through to November 15th in the Thurber Theatre at the Drake Performance and Event Center on the Ohio State University campus at 1849 Cannon Drive in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://theatre.osu.edu/events/enemy-people