Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 “An Enemy of the People” concerns a brave whistleblower trying to persuade authorities about inconvenient truths. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s terrific production uses Arthur Miller’s 1950 modernized translation to further reveal its continued relevance.
Ibsen’s focuses on scientist Thomas Stockmann, who’s discovered that the waters in the municipal baths are being poisoned by industrial runoff. He urges officials to close the spa and relocate it.
Stockmann naively assumes changes will occur, but is soon disillusioned. His brother and mayor, Peter, tells him the closing would cause the town economic ruin. The initially supportive newspaper editor, Hovstad, backs down when Peter informs him rebuilding the spa would mean a heavy tax on all townspeople. Stockmann attempts to speak directly to the public, but Peter turns the town against him.
Miller’s translation was written during the McCarthy investigations, so director Tom Quaintance sets the play in the 1950s. His beautifully controlled concept takes Stockmann (and the audience) from elation to puzzlement, then to disgust and fear. Choreographed scene changes and clever use of the performance space add satisfying polish. Electrifying bits of staging in the second act, not to be revealed here, further prove Quaintance’s brilliant theatrical sense.
Roles seem perfectly cast, beginning with Michael Bryan French’s Stockmann astutely evolving from low-key nice guy to desperate soothsayer. As Peter, Anthony Newfield projects snide superiority and steely resolve, his incendiary clashes with Stockmann the show’s dramatic core.
Jeffrey Blair Cornell makes newspaper publisher Aslaksen despicable in his “don’t rock the boat” stance, as does Benjamin Curns in Hovstad’s withdrawal of support because it might affect circulation. As Stockmann’s wife, Catherine, Julia Gibson communicates self-preservation over convictions, while Allison Altman as daughter, Petra, vividly does the opposite.
David Adamson turns in one of his best performances as Catherine’s wily father, Morton Kiil. Other fine portrayals come from Derrick Ivey’s crusty Captain Horster, Gregory DeCandia’s avid copy editor, Billing, and John Allore’s amusing drunk.
McKay Coble’s intriguing scenic design includes a smartly detailed 1950s living room and various water pipe motifs. Several scenic coups shouldn’t be spoiled here, but they take the poisoned-water theme to the extreme. Charlie Morrison’s moody lighting adds brooding atmosphere.
The production raises pertinent questions and spotlights troubling trends that should illuminate many of today’s headlines.
What: Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company.
Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and March 10-14; 2 p.m. Saturday and March 8 and 15.
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org/