BWW Review: A Brand New Look for AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at the Guthrie Theater
The plot of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE seems ripped from today's headlines: think Flint, think Detroit. A city resists making public that the water supplying the spa that is key to its economic livelihood as a tourist destination is contaminated. A sole scientist, Dr. Tom Stockman, is the whistleblower. He holds fast to his insistence that this news be broadcast, the opening of the spa delayed, and the contaminated pipes removed and replaced, over the objections of the his brother the mayor, the spa's board of directors, and his wife. While the press at first seems ready to support him, they too back down under pressure once the paper trail of the fraud behind the disaster disappears. Without access to sources, they won't publish.
Of course, Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (an iconoclast in his day, generally regarded as "The Father of Social Realism" in western theater history) penned this prescient piece back in 1882. The original idea is worthy but the text is wordy and borders on promoting eugenics, the cast is heavily male, and productions are usually cluttered by realistic bric-a-brac. Arthur Miller wrote an adaptation that played on Broadway in 1950. This was a useful updating, but lacks spark, to my ear. What the Guthrie is producing is a new adaptation by Brad Birch, first staged in 2016 in Wales. It's undergone further revision for this production.
Birch's adaptation is most welcome. It's entirely faithful to plot, but trimmed down so it can be performed in 1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission. He's brought forward the roles of Tom's wife and daughter, both of whom are present in the original but given relatively little to do; and he's given the crucial role of the investigative reporter Hovstad to a female actor.
These changes breathe new life into the familiar story, which is lifted up to a whole new level by the striking visuals and swift, intriguing transitions devised by British director Lyndsey Turner and her design team.
The first image we see is of Tom's 20ish daughter Petra, somewhat sloshed, singing into a mic while holding a blue balloon. She's at a party her parents are hosting, though her dad is several hours late in arriving. Her elegant mom is trying to put the best face on this she can. What's up, of course, is that Tom's gotten the results of a lab test he ordered on the water and is gobsmacked by the results and what needs to be done. By the end of the evening, he's gotten clear that the gala opening of the spa must be stopped, his brother the Mayor has outlined a very different position, his wife has tried to keep her brother, a financial guy, from finding out too much, and Petra has gotten thoroughly drunk. It's definitely 2018, not 1882.
Petra and her balloons drift through various scenes subsequently. What the balloons mean, exactly, is never fully clear-but for me, this air of metaphor is evocative, and adds some buoyant theatricality to Ibsen's rather stolid realism, which was shocking in its day but is no longer.
The cast is strong and balanced; all are skilled at using character gesture to create vitality while delivering a relatively dense text rapidly. Billy Carter as protagonist Tom Stockman is passionate and borderline disheveled. He's so absorbed by the water crisis that he misses signals from his beloved daughter, Petra (Christian Bardin) who has withdrawn from college and doesn't want to go back. Bardin's performance is one of the revelations of this adaptation: she's much more complex than in Ibsen's original. She gives us the sense of a whole messy life in progress, though we see only slices of it. Her line "It shouldn't be hard to be the child of someone who believes in you, but it is" rings true, and suggests a whole new angle of vision on this plot.
Kate Stockman (Sarah Agnew), Tom's wife and Petra's mom, is a beautiful and accomplished editor. She's more perceptive about the creative dilemmas faced by the heavily tattooed writer she's mentoring than she is about her own family. That writer, Billing (well played by a brooding Zarif Kabier), is an outsider whose parallel story dips in and out of view until emerging victoriously in the final moments of the play.
Hovstad, the reporter, is played here by Mo Perry, one of the tallest actors on the stage. She's decidedly female but never trades on this; dressed throughout in trousers and tailored coats, she duels verbally with Kate and argues forcefully with her editor Aslaksen (a grounded J.C. Cutler). Their newspaper is called, rather baldly, "The People's Messenger."
Ricardo Chavira as Peter Stockman, Tom's brother and the mayor, is venal but entirely credible. Zachary Fine plays Morten Kiil, Kate's brother, a financier who keeps his sister's well-being at the center of his concerns despite having skin in the game himself. These pairs of adult siblings add complexity to the family drama that is tied ineluctably to the fate of the spa.
A rotating turntable with moveable wall units and spare furnishings renders the multiple scenic transitions fluid. This also allows us to glimpse characters in the midst of their own concerns before a new scene establishes our focus on a particular duo and their dialogue. Behind the set, there is a looming image of the great mountain from which the waters descend, obscured sometimes by a plain drop that also hides the manipulations of the walls into differing configurations. Scenic designer Merle Hensel and lighting designer Jane Cox exploit the Guthrie resources to create shifting looks that suggest there is more going on than we are privileged to see.
This text has always been provocative. It remains so in this adaptation, which mutes some of Ibsen's balder pronouncements ("the majority is always wrong") but invites us to witness the machinations of power in the face of urgent unpleasant news. It's a fine addition to current political dialogue, and runs through June 3 on the Guthrie's proscenium stage.
Photo credit: Dan Norman