For a story set in Norway, written by Henrik Ibsen 130 years ago and adapted to stage by Arthur Miller 70 years ago, “An Enemy of the People” could have been written or set anywhere or at any time.
Echoing the most entangled and corrupt elements of human nature, the actors take the audience on a journey paralleling innumerable uncomfortable moments in this young century and in world history.
The story hammers home the overarching theme, “You can’t fight city hall,” not even from the inside.
Dr. Stockmann and his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann, sit on the board for Kirsten Springs, the main industry that put their small tourist town on the map internationally. When Dr. Stockmann tries to expose the springs as polluted, he believes the town will erect a statue of him in gratitude. He aims the revelation at his brother as a “gotcha” or “I told you so” moment rather than presenting an opportunity to fix the problem.
Already dinner friends with the town’s newspaper editor, Dr. Stockmann gains immediate backing from the local press. In fact, he has trouble believing anyone—even his brother—would argue with the facts of the study that he secretly commissioned.
Conflicted undercurrents emerge as each player divulges their respective agendas and biases. The editor is eager to wield the issue to overturn the current administration to a liberal one, and “will report on things he agrees with.” A reporter wants to use the exposure to start a revolution against the rich. The press owner will side with the majority and is unwilling to attack the current administration.
The local press corps watches the main conflict between the brothers play out in their office. Dr. Stockmann relies on his one report as proof that the water is poisoned. Mayor Stockmann enlightens his brother of the exposure’s economic realities: a two-year cleanup, pervasive unemployment, and a cost that would require a corporate bailout. Then the mayor asks his brother to sign a cover-up, veiling a blacklisting threat for non-compliance.
As the grapevine winds its tentacles through the town, larger economic concerns develop while opinions wax and wane. Dr. Stockmann’s wife is concerned about their social and financial standing. Several question the source data, citing possible flaws or varied root causes. The captain, who wasn’t concerned about politics until it directly affected him, finds himself as the only townie willing to host the resulting town hall meeting, which escalates a loudest-equals-rightest conflict that no one truly wins. Even doing what each believes is right can result in unintended consequences.
With each cast member playing their role passionately, Director F.L. Henley, Jr., was pleased with the audience’s emotional response. He saw the cast “create this energy where they flow to the stage, creating a feedback loop, bringing the message the audience walks away with.”
Henley said that, in dealing with this heavy play, “the actors showed their abilities in expanding characters’ text to the stage. It’s not about subject matter. It’s about beautiful creating moments for the audience. They create a real character exhibiting fear, love, sadness, hatred, anger.”
Many parallels have already been drawn from this play to the present-day Washington, D.C., Beltway class. However, the toxic group dynamics the actors unfold for the audience wouldn’t necessarily need a world stage to play themselves out. A similar situation could easily transpire at micro-levels: a homeowners association, a party planning committee, a PTA meeting.
“An Enemy of the People” is a “Groundhog Day” of sorts, echoing the most corrupt elements from numerous plots of both fiction and real life. Politics play out onstage as they did in Greek and Roman times, in kangaroo courts, and the Salem witch trials. Brothers feud like Cain and Abel, or Liam and Noah Gallagher. Egos and agendas reign instead of common sense. Divisive opinions are touted as truth. Authority pressures conformity.
Why? Because human nature doesn’t change. Fast-forward to audiences centuries from today, and they will likely wonder if Ibsen/Miller wrote this play for their own time and circumstances.
“An Enemy of the People” runs through March 15 at Gamut Theatre, 15 N. 4th St., Harrisburg. For more information and tickets, visit www.gamuttheatre.org/enemy.