In this year of endless divining of the will of the people, theatergoers might find especially noteworthy the contrarian outlook of playwright Henrik Ibsen, who no doubt would have considered our obsession with majority viewpoints a lot of, um, malarkey.
Public opinion, he declares through his touchstone character in “An Enemy of the People,” the whistleblower Dr. Thomas Stockmann, veers in the direction of self-interest, regardless of the consequences. “The majority is never right!” Stockmann blurts out indignantly, scandalizing the easily offended Norwegian populace and sealing his fate as a reviled outcast.
Theaters up and down the Eastern Seaboard are pondering in diverse incarnations the voice of Ibsen’s truth-teller, and the tyranny of the majority, in revivals of his 1882 play about a scientist who tries to rally a town after he discovers pollution is poisoning the springs that are vital to the local economy. At Baltimore’s Centerstage and New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, sometime efficient versions of this drama of social conscience are now on the boards, showcasing performances that give incisive flesh to some the tale’s pragmatic characters — and some not so much.
Still to come is another adaptation, a version set in Israel by playwright Boaz Gaon called “Boged (Traitor): An Enemy of the People,” starting Jan. 12 at Theater J. Is it a coincidence that so many companies are drawn to the story of a man who’s blackballed for shoving a harsh reality in taxpayers’ faces?
Viewing the two versions of “Enemy,” staged by directors Kwame Kwei-Armah in Baltimore and Doug Hughes in New York, without an eye and an ear to the sorry current condition of political discourse seems an impossibility. Is there any perceived value in public life these days in leveling with the people? As demonstrated by the case of Stockmann — who in speaking out loses everything except the love of his family — a public figure pays more dearly, the bitterer the pill he seeks to administer.
“An Enemy of the People” may strike some as prosaic political theater. In the adaptation composed by Arthur Miller (and used at Centerstage) and a more recent one by British dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz at Manhattan Theatre Club, the morality tale unfolds starkly, a linear advance that begins on the night Stockmann (Dion Graham in Baltimore; Boyd Gaines in New York) learns that his fears about the springs have been confirmed in lab tests. What I love about the play is its lean, clean narrative structure, the purity of its outrage and altruism. That Ibsen’s drama prefigured by 100 years the scourge of toxic waste — the springs are tainted by a tannery upstream — cements it as a watershed of voice-in-the-wilderness drama, clearing a path for generations of alarm-bell-ringers on the stage, from Frank Wedekind (the original “Spring Awakening”) to Clifford Odets (“Waiting for Lefty”) and even to Mike Daisey (“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”).
Although the unevenly acted Baltimore and New York revivals are not definitively satisfying renditions of the play, Kwei-Armah’s version at Centerstage comes closer to mustering the desired stirring effect. Bolstered by Miller’s superior treatment and a terrific embodiment of the slick and craven town mayor by Kevin Kilner, the Baltimore “Enemy” drives home Ibsen’s lessons in a far more convincing fashion. Richard Thomas, portraying the mayor in the New York production as an effete nasty, telegraphs the evil way too transparently, and some others in the New York cast, such as Gerry Bamman as a local printer and Michael Siberry as the doctor’s father-in-law, are weirdly hammy.
Perhaps, too, the choice by Kwei-Armah, Centerstage’s artistic director, to push the play forward in time to 1960 eliminates enough of “An Enemy of the People’s” vintage feel without going overboard with contemporary analogy. This allows the set and costume designers, Riccardo Hernandez and David Burdick, respectively, to apply to the physical production some voguish “Mad Men” elements. (The multiracial casting exudes more freshness.) But the volume of tinkering does become a little self-serving: The display of early TV technology to highlight the way electronic media can amplify the majority’s hysteria proves more distracting than illuminating.
Still, in the crucial scene in which the town turns on Dr. Stockmann during a meeting organized by him, Centerstage’s version erects with more poignancy a rhetorical monument to that loneliest of campaigners, the leader of an unpopular cause.
adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s play by Arthur Miller. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Sets, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, David Burdick; lighting, Michelle Habeck; music and sound, Ryan Rumery; video and projections, Alex Koch. With John Ahlin, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Charise Castro Smith, Jimi Kinstle, Susan Rome, Wilbur Edwin Henry. About 2 hours. Through Sunday at Centerstage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. 410-332-0033. www.centerstage.org.
adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Ben Stanton; music and sound, David Van Tieghem. With Maite Alina, Randall Newsome, John Procaccino, Kathleen McNenny. About 2 hours. Through Nov. 11 at Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. 212-239-6200. www.manhattantheatreclub.com .