BWW Reviews: Recipe for Disaster - Center Stage's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
A town on the brink of international fame and fortune… a naïve man of science saddled with a severe care of sibling rivalry…toss in evidence that might turn the town to ruin, layer with idealism, political positioning, and more proof that money is the root of all evil…and you have a recipe for disaster, not to mention a riveting evening’s entertainment as Baltimore’s Center Stage presents Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s famed work, “An Enemy of the People.”
Center Stage’s production of this didactic play is particularly timely, given the looming national U.S. Presidential election, when men stand before podiums making promises, making accusations, spieling stats and stories, conflicting facts, conflicting lies, while powerful figures meet in back rooms and the public doesn’t know what to believe, concerned only with the answer to the all-consuming question, “What does this mean to ME?”
Yes, in this setting, “An Enemy of the People” fits just fine. As Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah notes in the theater’s press release, “ I thought when we were running up to the election, that this was a wonderful piece to investigate the role of the citizen, the role of the individual, and to have the debate about the majority and the minority,” says Kwame.
In case audiences might miss the connection, Kwame leaves nothing to doubt as he projects portions of the famed 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate on the stage backdrop prior to curtain. Kudos to scenic director Riccardo Hernandez and to video and projection designer Alex Koch, who, along with costumer David Burdick created a 1960s era look complete with strategically placed Kennedy era black and white TV sets which projected behind-the-scenes action to complement the action on stage.
In Ibsen/Millar’s play, the titular “enemy” takes multiple forms. Actor Dion Graham’s Dr. Stockmann vacillates between town hero and town enemy as he declares evidence in the first act that the town’s soon-to-be-famous springs have been poisoned by runoff from a nearby tanning factory.
Graham’s Stockmann is an idealist, believing that the matter is as simply resolved as a math equation. Rebuild the health institute and water facility to avoid running afoul of the factory, and everything’s put right.
Town newspaper men Hovstad (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and Billing (Jeffrey Kuhn) and local business leader Aslaksen (Wilbur Edwin Henry) first feed Stockmann’s ego, praising the doctor as a town savior until they realize that to make the changes he proposes will require a huge tax levy upon the people, including themselves.
If Stockmann is an idealist, his brother, Peter (Kevin Kilner), the town mayor, is a strict pragmatist, who realizes the huge financial burden of his brother’s findings should they go public. When Stockmann insists on telling his story, the battle between the truth and self-interest is joined and which will win is the stuff of after-curtain conversation and debate.
As always, a Center Stage production is impeccably acted; Graham’s Stockmann shifts from pride to pain to anger to near insanity while never losing a look of clear astonishment at his fellows’ inability to see what seems so apparently plain to him. Kilner’s Peter, with his gold-topped cane, represents wealth and power, and is blinded by both, believing his actions are actually for the greater good, for both the town and his brother.
Aslaksen campaigns eternally for “moderation,” while John Ahlin’s Captain Horster steers clear of all politics before ultimately siding with Stockmann and his family, explaining, “I have been to a lot of place where people can’t say unpopular things.”
Clearly in “Enemy” the concept of “majority rules” is put to the test; as Stockmann notes, “the majority is never right until it does right.”
Susan Rome, Charise Castro Smith, and Ross Bickell as Stockmann’s wife, daughter and father-in-law do exceedingly well in their limited supporting roles; Smith’s Petra has the indignant outrage of passionate, idealistic youth; Rome’s Catherine supports her husband up to the point when the choice appears between truth and family; and Bickell’s Morten is, in many respects, the most nuanced character, appearing at first somewhat backward and befuddled—stuffing apples in his pockets, referring to Stockmann’s news of poisonous bacteria as “cockroaches in the water”—but actually incredibly savvy to the situation as it develops, realizing the opportunity to make a fortune. Seemingly a clown, he is in fact, cynical and clever.
As a side note, I could not help but consider, given my 25 years as a public relations professional, that things might have gone considerably better for the Stockmanns if they had simply had some decent PR counsel! In PR, we always ask, what are the ramifications of any significant action, how might the townspeople react to this news, do you have additional research to back up the claims of tainted water, what would it cost to make changes to the water system and where would this money come from? And that big question--what does it mean to ME--which Stockmann naively decides to ignore, believing everyone would hold the truth as sacred as he.
An Enemy of the People continues its run at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, now through Oct. 21st. Tickets start and $10 and can be ordered online at www.centerstage.com/Enemy or by calling 410-332-0033.