Brothers (Up) in Arms: A Trim, Healthy Enemy of the People Is a Strong Candidate This Election Season

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Gaines and Kathleen McNanny in An Enemy of the People. (Joan Marcus)

Coming in an election year, when so many politicians polarize the electorate by confusing greed with moral good, the Manhattan Theater Club has picked a perfect time to revive Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama An Enemy of the People. Eschewing the most often used translation, by Arthur Miller, in favor of a new, trimmed-down version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the Broadway production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre addresses the dilemma of one man’s idealistic struggle to buck authority and expose the truth in the face of a powerful opposition that reaches mob force. The play resonates today because a lot of do-gooders with hearts in the right place are eventually beaten into submission, giving in to the majority, whereas Ibsen’s hero faces ruin rather than compromise. Directed with force by Doug Hughes, this intermission-less outing cuts huge chunks of exposition and debate from Ibsen’s talky text, shortening a sometimes tedious play to manageable length, along with cutting some of the acting roles, but without excising any important values. It also provides two valiant actors, Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas, with the opportunity to own the stage instead of leasing it. They are marvelous.

A coastal town in Norway with a spa that serves as a lucrative tourist attraction is the setting for a play of contrasting ideas. This is a village with a strong community spirit and a valid sense of prosperity, judiciously served by two brothers with equal stakes in their neighbors’ futures. The funding and construction of the baths is the work of the rigid, strong-willed mayor, Peter Stockmann (Mr. Thomas). He rules by the book, not always consulting the town fathers on matters of economy and decision-making. His brother Thomas (Mr. Gaines) is a scientist and intellectual with implacable values, a popular host, family man, respected pillar of the community and “hail fellow well met” who respects authority but holds steady in his devotion to the common man. When the baths regarded as “the pulsating heart of our idyllic community” are discovered to be a health hazard, a crisis erupts that divides Thomas and Peter as well as the town administrators and the people themselves. Thomas has discovered that poisons from the local tannery have seeped into the water. After secretly analyzing samples, the university lab has sent him the result: Bacteria swimming in the industrial toxins are posing a real menace to public safety. To rectify the situation, Thomas demands the closing of the spa while every water pipe is relaid. His brother the mayor has other priorities. In addition to warning of the gigantic expense of correcting a polluted water system, he convinces the newspaper editor, bureaucrats, bigots, moneylenders and rich citizens, all of whom want only to turn a profit, that closing down the spa would spell financial disaster. The impurity in the soil from the nearby swamp and the seepage from the tannery are the cause of the ensuing panic, but 19th century playwright and social reformer Ibsen turns the whole thing into a metaphor for political corruption.

And so a polemic takes flight, with two heated sides of a moral argument debating in seamless prose. Where Thomas the self-righteous scientist sees disease and pestilence, Peter the pragmatic mayor sees ruin, lost revenues in the town coffers and a threat to his personal wealth. Promoting discretion, silence and the avoidance of scandal at any cost, he orders his brother to retract his evidence and then fires him as the town’s chief medical officer. Like a lot of modern political morality plays all the way up to and including Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, truth and honor battle power and practicality on a battlefield of twisted values that do not always end up benefiting the majority. In Act Two, both sides leech their ideals into tyranny. Up to this point, Peter is the villain, but now Thomas gives reason for alarm, too. Thomas’s convictions about saving the town extend to a coup, replacing the democratically elected government with young and fiercely committed new blood that is out for vengeance—and the good of the people is somehow subverted. This reversal of ideals leads to an unruly town meeting that turns the play into a political discourse. When freethinking is in danger of being stamped out by the mob mentality of the majority, and nobility of character and spirit erodes, just who is the real enemy of the people? Think National Socialism in Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and you get a fist in the face of what Ibsen was getting at.

You also get the reason why An Enemy of the People was one of Ibsen’s least popular works. At its best, it has a theme in common with all Ibsen plays—the high cost of integrity. Hedda and Nora faced similar life-changing decisions, but A Doll’s House has more suspense and Hedda Gabler has more drama. My caveat is about the style used to express diversity. The lines are full of ire and rage, but the opposing opinions expressed by the two brothers explode in an annoying shouting match that could achieve more maximum impact in a softer, more persuasive staging. There are other ways of showing emotion rather than yelling. The play is relevant, but the direction lacks impact. Just because it has relevance does not make it dramatically exciting. This is in no way the fault of the actors. Mr. Gaines is a perfect voice of reason, and while I would usually expect to see Mr. Thomas in the more sympathetic role, his villainous but syrupy-tongued mayor sent chills down my spine. Both actors are so good that it would be fascinating to see them switch roles midway through the run, giving the play an added element of disparate but equally persuasive thrust. As it now stands, they evoke a sense of how politicians are the real enemy of the people and the individual who stands up for truth in the face of adversity is the real enemy of the ignorant majority.

Unquestionably, this take on An Enemy of the People is a production worth seeing of a play worth seeing again.

rreed@observer.com

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