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BWW Review: CentreStage's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE - And Just What Would Ibsen Write About Flint, Michigan?

As the curtain prepares to close on the theatre season in Memphis, "tried and true" standards -- A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at Germantown Community Theatre and HAY FEVER at Theatre Memphis -- are competing stage to stage with powerhouse musicals -- MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL at Playhouse on the Square. Easy to overlook is CentreStage Theatre's "small scale" but timely production of Henrik Ibsen's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, staged at the Evergreen Theatre. While the intimate confines of that particular venue necessarily limit the production values that might be found elsewhere, the themes and surprising ironic twists, as well as the commitment of Director Marler Stone and his ensemble, are as relevant and riveting as an audience might wish -- Just how much "truth" should be shared with the public? When funds go "head to head" with environmental and health concerns, which will out? When democracy is allowed to go "full steam ahead," are there inherent dangers? Frankly, the play -- written decades ago -- reminds me how far ahead of his time Ibsen was as a writer.

At the beginning of the play, there is a good deal of back-slapping and a self-congratulatory tone at the home of the recently prosperous "Dr. Thomas Stockmann," whose vision of a health resort has resulted in a surge of increased income for everyone in town -- and cemented relationships heretofore wary at best. All of this, however, has been compromised by the location of the springs: Despite the Doctor's earlier objections, his brother the Mayor and the Town Council, in order to preserve funds, have situated the resort too close to the tannery belonging to the Doctor's father-in-law, ex-council member "Morten Kiil" (Ron Gordon in a crowd-pleasing performance -- more penny-pinching than "Fagin"). When Dr. Stockmann discovers that the supposedly salubrious springs are, in fact, a poisonous kind of cesspool, everyone (well, everyone with "an axe to grind" against the Mayor and the established Council) applauds the Doctor's discovery. That is, until . . . .

Ibsen's play is a disturbing repudiation of those who espouse truisms about democracy and standing up for what is right (the Doctor will wisely concede that it is best not to wear one's best trousers when proclaiming the truth). Part of the sardonic delight here is watching characters (especially Hovstaad, the editor of the "liberal" THE PEOPLE'S MESSENGER) "turn on a dime" when their pocketbooks are threatened. The filth in the supposedly healthy waters is like the underlying moral hypocrisy in those who seem most righteous. It's also enjoyable to hear Ibsen scoff at notions about democracy (Justin Willingham's "Captain Horster," the Doctor's one true friend, wryly observes that it just wouldn't work for every man aboard ship to lay hands to the wheel). When the Doctor and his family consider leaving the town and finding a new life in America, I shuddered to think how Ibsen might react to the mob-like mentality of the masses at our present political rallies.

A large and capable cast populate the small stage at the Evergreen: Adam Remsen is an impassioned, principled, yet "clueless" "Dr. Stockmann"; Jon W. Sparks as his brother the Mayor is both disapproving and dyspeptic --and has the savvy politician's ability to see the consequences of the Doctor's findings; David Hammons as the vacillating "Hovstaad" is the very essence of hypocrisy; and, as the Doctor's wife and daughter, Dana Terle and Kristen Vandervort are wary and supportive. In fact, everyone in the cast makes a strong impression.

Andy Saunder's set design makes the best of Evergreen's facilities, and Caleb Blackwell's costumes are true to time and place. Through May 8. Photo courtesy of CentreStage Theatre.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)