An Enemy of the People
In honor of the centennial year of Henrik Ibsen's death, Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company is presenting the second Washington area production of An Enemy of the People in two months. This production of the 1882 play is much more polished than the earlier one at the Olney Theatre Center, but it's also very different in attitude: where that one was earnest and rabble-rousing, this one is bitterly ironic and filled with surprising moments of humor.
Like the playwright, Director Kjetil Bang-Hansen is Norwegian, which gives him a different perspective on Ibsen's work. His interpretation shows the protagonist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Joseph Urla), as a naïve figure with blind spots as well as honorable aims, not to mention a tendency toward self-pity. He's the prototypical whistle blower who has no notion of the real-world consequences of his actions: when this Dr. Stockmann announces that the town's therapeutic baths are filled with contaminated water and must be closed down for the sake of the bathers' health, he assumes everyone will be grateful to him and can't see any reason why anyone could be displeased. (Two words: higher taxes.)
Timian Alsaker has designed both the set and 1930s-era costumes, subtly underscoring the black-and-white nature of Dr. Stockmann's dilemma by literally dressing the set and the actors in blacks, whites, and shades of gray. Only when Stockmann attempts to bring his message directly to the public – played here, as at Olney, with the theater audience standing in for the crowd at a town meeting – do the characters' clothes take on any color. The heartbeat of this production is the relentless sound of dripping water, thanks to Martin Desjardins' sound design.
While Urla makes his character impassioned but callow, Philip Goodwin brings out the sympathy as well as the rigidity of Dr. Stockmann's older brother, the town's mayor and spokesman for the status quo. Goodwin miraculously finds human feeling in the midst of the character's ruthless politeness and fastidiousness, even suggesting unrequited feelings for the doctor's too often neglected wife (Caitlin O'Connell).
Rick Foucheux, always fascinating to watch, ably shows the many facets of a small businessman defined by his cautiousness and the small amount of power he wields. Some of the other performances are more two-dimensional. As a newspaper editor with political ambitions, Derek Lucci never quite manages to hide his darker side; it's hard to believe that Dr. Stockmann's perceptive daughter (Samantha Soule) would be taken in by him.
For all that, Ibsen's questions of the role of the individual versus the community is as modern as ever. Dr. Stockmann lives in a place where employees have no right to opinions that differ from those of their employer, and where the would-be reformers are just as manipulative as the entrenched bureaucrats they want to replace.
Shakespeare Theatre Company