An Enemy of the People Speaks Truth to Power

An Enemy of the People. Photo by Ian Flanders

Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, “An Enemy of the People” has been masterfully updated at the Theatricum Botanicum.

Freely adapted by Theatricum’s artistic director Ellen Geer, the controversial 1882 Norwegian play now takes place in the small town of South Fork, South Carolina, where issues of race further compound the economic concerns at stake.

The time is 1980 in an election year that would usher in the Reagan era, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Moral Majority. 

Meanwhile, the tiny town of South Fork holds KKK rallies while experiencing an economic boom due to the opening of a luxury spa that attracts wealthy tourists. 

The spa’s director, Dr. Thomas Stockman, is married to a black woman, which, considering the time, may stretch an audience’s ability to “suspend disbelief. It is, however, what makes this production so electric. That and the consummate talent of the actors.

While Stockman and his family are entertaining friends for the New Year’s holiday, he receives a scientific report determining that the spa water is contaminated with e coli and other harmful bacteria.

In order to protect the health of the town and its tourists, Dr. Stockman (Chris W. Jones) does what he feels is the responsible thing and takes immediate action to publish the water report in the local newspaper. 

When the doctor informs his sister, also the mayor of South Fork, Mildred Stockman (Katherine Griffith), about the report, she explodes with anger, moves to squelch the information, and tells the townspeople that it would cost upwards of a million dollars to make the water clean, a fortune for the small town. 

Horatio, the editor of the newspaper, understands the power of the press and initially agrees to run the report but backs down after pressure from the mayor. The doctor stands on principal and won’t relent, determined to inform the town, even at the risk of its economic ruin.

By majority rule, powerful forces prevail to prevent the publication of the report and the issue ultimately deteriorates into a riot during a charged town hall meeting.  

In spite of the fact that he is ultimately fired from his job, faces economic ruin, loses his friends, and his family is threatened with violence, Dr. Stockman still refuses to back down. 

Ibsen’s trailblazing drama stands alone for its steadfast heroism, singularity of purpose, and determination to stand on principal. While the story is dominated by Dr. Stockman, Geer, in her adaptation, emphasizes the family and social issues, which brings the play right up to today. 

Featuring an outstanding cast, the timeless tale was masterfully co-directed by Geer and Melora Marshall. 

The ensemble is strong, with standouts Christopher W. Jones, Katherine Griffith, Earnestine Phillips, Gerald C. Rivers, Constance Jewell Lopez, Jeff Wiesen, and Max Lawrence. 

As Dr. Tom Stockman, Jones gives a powerful performance that rises to an evangelical zeal and drives the play forward as he stands alone against the majority opinion. (Be sure to  also catch Jones’ comedic mastery as Bottom, the Weaver, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.)

Katherine Griffith is a commanding presence as Mayor Mildred Stockman. A known quantity of the Theatricum’s repertory theater, her powerful voice, so appropriate to this character, underlies an accomplished actor, who never disappoints. You won’t want to—and you won’t—

miss a word. We hope to see more of Ms. Griffith.

As Katherine Stockman, Earnestine Phillips plays a passionate and loyal wife who is fiercely protective of her four children; Phillips gives a righteous performance that raises the level of this production to “must see.”

Max Lawrence’s refreshing performance as Horatio, the earnest young newspaper editor who gives in to the intimidation tactics of the Mayor,  carries the role well in the large cast. By not “playing” the conflict of a black man put in that position, an imagined backstory can explain the reason for his decision.

Constance Jewell Lopez is a fearless “freethinker” as Patience, the Stockman’s eldest daughter. Steven C. Fisher offers a spirited liberal point of view as Billings, a newspaper reporter who offers some welcome relief from the often high-minded moral platitudes of Ibsen’s play. 

Smaller roles are essential to the story, as with the incomparable Gerald C. Rivers, who gives a strong and resolute performance as Cornell, Katherine Stockman’s father, a pig farmer whose livestock may be the cause of the water pollution. 

Steve Fisher in the role of the apolitical, soft-spoken sea captain, Gerald, appropriately fills the stage with few words and his mere presence. 

On opening night, Connor Clark Pascale (who alternates with Matthew Pardue), portrayed David Duke in the opening scene of a KKK meeting that is bone chilling. 

Henrik Johan Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is regarded as one of the founders of modernism in theatre, Ibsen is often referred to as the father of realism and one of the most influential playwrights of his time. 

While his plays were often mired in controversy, Ibsen is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare and by the early 20th century, A Doll’s House became the world’s most performed play. 

Some controversies never change. 

Even as the current president of the United States calls certain newspapers “an enemy of the people,” this outstanding production takes risks to reveal chilling insights into our modern political system in this timeless and always relevant play.n 

An Enemy of the People plays through Sept. 28. Tickets range from $10 – $42; children 4 and under are free. Dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Arrive early and picnic before a performance. Schedule of performances, ticket prices, call (310) 455-3723; theatricum.com.

 

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