The prescience of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ – who knew?

By Ande Jacobson

The Pear never backs away from edgy theatre, a tradition that’s alive and well in their current production – An Enemy of the People. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political masterpiece premiered in London in 2008 and made its Broadway debut in 2012. Though this version of Ibsen’s story is 90 minutes shorter than the original (the Pear’s production runs approximately 120 minutes including the intermission) and includes updated (and translated) language, the integrity of Ibsen’s material remains intact. The surprising aspect of this work is that although it depicts a situation in 1880s Norway, its themes and issues are just as pertinent to U.S. society today and include altruism and whistleblowing vs. profit and venal self-interest; media manipulation vs. the truth; free speech; and the educated elite vs. the working class.

The plot surrounds a quaint, coastal, Norwegian spa town. Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Ron Talbot), Medical Officer at the Baths, uncovers a horrible secret that could ruin the town. The baths on which the town has staked its future prosperity have been contaminated by the tanneries. Instead of curing people’s ills, the baths’ waters are making them sick. Thomas’ brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (Richard Holman), is the voice of authority in the town as well as the Chairman of the Baths Committee. The two brothers have competed with one another their entire lives, and Thomas’ discovery immediately puts them at odds, not just because of their long established rivalry, but also because of their philosophical divide.

Thomas, his wife Catherine (Mohana Rajagopal), daughter Petra (Hannah Mary Keller), and unseen sons Eilif and Morten have a lot to lose depending on how this all plays out. Catherine’s foster father, Morten Kiil (John Musgrave), also has a critical stake in the outcome. Others in the town have different motivations including: the newspaper editor, Hovstad (Bryan Moriarty); the printer, Aslaksen (Anthony Silk); the reporter, Billing (Matt Brown); various townspeople (Jerry Hitchcock, Mihaela Robbs); as well as a gracious sailor, Captain Horster (Michael Kruse Craig). What transpires is a scandal worthy of coverage in today’s ratings seeking news media.

Norm Beamer’s scenic design is sparse, but effective. Three window frames hang upstage giving some perspective to the rooms, whether they be in the doctor’s house, the newspaper offices, or the captain’s “barn of a house” serving as a meeting hall. A multilevel platform spans the stage, providing an interesting performance space for each locale. When in the doctor’s house, the platform levels effectively separate the rooms. In other settings, the levels allow for focus and authority to come through. Straight-backed chairs are set in each location/room. Because of the levels, even minimal furniture/prop movement requires somewhat extended scene changes.

Kathleen Qiu’s costume designs are loosely 19th century, but not aggressively so. The actors’ attire is reminiscent of a community of some affluence around that period. The exception is Captain Horster, whose attire appears more modern and casual.

Elizabeth Kruse Craig both produces and directs this production. This adaptation is written in five acts, the first three of which are presented prior to intermission, with the remaining two following the intermission break.

Act 1 serves to introduce most of the characters in an informal dinner at Thomas’ house. Each invitee trickles in alone, eventually gathering in the dining room, and continuing to eat a late dinner while a separate conversation ensues in the living room.

Aside from the upstage dinner in Act 1, throughout the play, much of the action is noticeably, and slightly unnaturally, cheated out, so many character conversations largely take place side-by-side rather than face-to-face. One exciting exception is the visceral scene in Act 2 when Thomas and Peter confront one another over the doctor’s discovery. This is by far the most powerful scene in the play. Both Talbot and Holman are fully immersed in their characters who are at odds such that the tension is palpable. They address each other directly, their characters’ verbal venom piqued and freely spewing forth.

Talbot handles the tone and bearing of his character well. Thomas is as an educated, intelligent, and altruistic man striving for what he sees as truth and fairness. Thomas cannot bury the facts that he’s uncovered and will work to the best of his ability to bring them to public’s attention, in his mind, for the good of all. Talbot moves with confidence and stands firm. For the most part, he handles the greater formality in Thomas’ speech naturally, though at least on opening night, he stumbled over a few of his lines.

Holman plays an exquisite villain. Peter clearly is the embodiment of self-interest, no matter the cost to anybody else. Holman’s bearing is one of authority and appropriate pomposity.

Keller’s Petra is a highlight in this production. Petra is a bit of an anomaly for her time. She is erudite and outspoken, at least as much as she is able. Petra recognizes the disadvantages she has as a woman of her time, at one point stating plainly that she wished she was a man. Keller gives a strong performance, making the audience feel the frustrations that Petra must feel in light of the positions both she and her father are in.

Many others in the town are rather opportunistic, changing their loyalties based not on conviction but rather on economic self-interest. Hovstad is particularly underhanded and delightfully deceptive in this regard, and Moriarty plays this duplicity well. Silk’s Aslaksen initially seems to be a bit of comic relief with a public persona revealing him to be a one-joke sidekick mired in “restraint.” Privately, on the other hand, his cunning comes through.

There are several moments of taut suspense at various points in the presentation, but in a few segments, the action seems slightly forced, and the story isn’t as fluid as it could be. As the run continues, this unevenness should smooth considerably. There is also a pivotal scene when audience participation is encouraged. That scene gets to be extremely raucous, and in many ways, hits very close to home given the current political climate.

Caroline Clark’s sound design includes a selection of thematic choral and instrumental Norwegian folk music which has a distinctly Celtic feel to it. The music is played before the show once the house is opened and over scene changes. Because of the dynamic range of the music, some of the louder portions before the show are slightly overwhelming so that the quieter sections are not lost.

While it’s doubtful that Ibsen realized just how prescient his observations would be almost 140 years later, An Enemy of the People is a political play that is shockingly timely. The questions that have been plaguing the country in recent times were clearly apparent during Ibsen’s time as well. Sadly, then as now, those who bring unpopular views to light, even if they are in the people’s best interest, often face harsh consequences making altruism both a dangerous and lonely pursuit. While far from uplifting, the play is thought-provoking and worth a look. There is a bit of language uttered during the more heated exchanges that in film would likely garner a PG-13 rating.

What:  An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Where:  Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View, CA 94043

When:  Continues Thursdays – Sundays through 12 November 2017

See http://thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.

(Photos courtesy of The Pear)

Reference:
An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen
An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

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