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Review: Despite 19th-Century Setting, OSU's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE Engages Students in Contemporary Issues

(L to R) Ambre Shoneff as Catherine Stockmann, Blake Edwards
as Peter Stockmann and Zack Meyer as Dr. Thomas Stockmann in a
scene from The Ohio State University Department of Theatre's production
of An Enemy of the People. (Photo by Matt Hazard).

The issue of sanitation in a Norwegian town might not seem like the most interesting subject for a play presented to an audience of college students, but the Ohio State Department of Theatre's production of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" surprisingly touches on contemporary questions still prevalent in our modern world.

Originally written by Ibsen in 1882, "An Enemy of the People" addresses the timeless struggle between what is right and what is popular. Based in a coastal spa town in southern Norway, the play centers on a local doctor's discovery that the town's public baths -- its main source of revenue -- are contaminated and pose a serious health risk. Faced with the disapproval of high-ranking members of the local government, as well as the press and many townspeople, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Zack Meyer), the play's idealistic and science-minded protagonist, must decide whether to obscure the truth in order to bolster public morale or reveal the issues with the baths and prevent future illness.

Meyer excels as Stockmann in Ibsen's dialogue-heavy drama. The contentious relationship he has with his brother, Peter Stockmann (Blake Edwards), who also happens to be the town's mayor, is explored through explosive arguments that develop out of the siblings' different ideas of what is best for the town. The stances both characters take on the issue are not without their own respective merits, and the strained familial relations apparent in each heated conversation only add to the pathos the audience feels toward both brothers.

In addition to the moral questions surrounding public policy, other contemporary issues are introduced by the characters Hovstad (AJ Wright), Billing (Joe Kopyt) and Aslaksen (Gabriel Simms) who represent members of the press, as well as a collection of distinct political ideologies. The struggle between the working and privileged classes -- another theme easily applied to modern-day society -- is best seen in the tense, albeit slightly humorous, scenes that include interaction between the Stockmanns and the staff of the local newspaper.

As the play progresses, the situation becomes more dire for Thomas Stockmann and his family, and the abrupt change in the public's opinion of the doctor's recent findings relating the baths further emphasizes his newfound role as a social pariah, or, as it is shouted quite clearly many times throughout the play, an "enemy of the people."

The version of the play performed by the OSU Department of Theatre is by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and was

(L to R) Ambre Shoneff as Catherine Stockmann, Blake Edwards as
Peter Stockmann and Zack Meyer as Dr. Thomas Stockmann in a scene
from The Ohio State University Department of Theatre's production of
An Enemy of the People. (Photo by Matt Hazard).

commissioned and first produced by the Arcola Theatre in London in 2008, according to the program notes. Although the use of this updated version probably helps the collegiate audience understand the fast-paced, rhetorically rich discourses that dominate nearly every scene, at times the translation is too modern for the setting in which the play is presented. Indeed, the use of colloquial terms apparent in today's speech has an unwelcome, almost jarring, effect that detracts from the exchanges occurring on stage.

As college students studying at a university located in a modern metropolis, we can connect to the issues addressed on the stage through our life experiences and observations -- we don't need anachronistic language to force a connection that already exists.

The inventive and impressively versatile set (designed by Joshua Quinlan) and striking costumes (designed by Sarah Fickling) contain enough theatrical magic to wow audiences; however, generally, Ibsen's play is more thought-provoking than whimsical. Although it is unlikely that "An Enemy of the People" will be every student's first choice when it comes to evening entertainment on campus, those whose interests align will be surprised by how much this 19th century play parallels issues apparent in our contemporary world.

"An Enemy of the People" is set to be performed in the Thurber Theatre, located in the Drake Performance and Event Center on OSU's campus, from Nov. 5 - 15.

Tickets are available for purchase in person through the Ohio State Theatre Box Office or online via Ticketmaster.

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