Regional Reviews: Chicago
An Enemy of the People
The point of all this is two-fold. As with any modern-dress staging, Fall's is reminding us of the timelessness of the play's theme. Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Philip Earl Johnson) is the medical director of a newly successful mineral spa in a small Norwegian city. When he discovers the natural springs are contaminated by sewage and are literally making its users seriously ill, he tries to warn the town and urge the temporary closing of the spa and the repair of the sewage systems that are causing the damage. When the town leaders (including his brother, played here by Scott Jaeck) and the locals learn of the economic costs of his recommendations, the entire town turns against him. What seems unrealistic about this plotline from the "father of realism" is that no one would realize it would be unsustainable to simply ignore the problem as people get sick from the springs. Think about the real-life present-day situation of the lead poisoning in the water supply of Flint, Michigan. That hasn't turned out so well for the public officials responsible who have been charged with felony crimes.
Perhaps to suggest we view An Enemy of the People less literally than that, Falls has staged it as a surreal nightmare in which the moral dilemma of standing on principle in the face of universal opposition is drawn broadly. Falls illustrates the horror of mob mentality by putting some 70 actors and extras on stage for the town meeting scene in which Thomas Stockmann makes his case only to be shouted down by a fellow citizen claiming, "the majority is always right." Not so, answers Stockmann, but he goes beyond the thinking of Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one." Stockman further claims "the majority is always wrong, the minority is rarely right." Dr. Stockmann goes on to declare that the stupid people are in the majority, and that the stupid should not govern the clever. In a moment when so many Americans reject the policies of its legally (if not precisely democratically) elected government, that would seem to resonate, but the issue in America now is that the majority's choice for U.S. President and the party chosen as the majority in Congress, did not win a majority of votes in the 2016 elections. The arcane mechanics of the Electoral College and politics of gerrymandering have prevented true majority rule in the US. Regardless, An Enemy of the People may have something to say about our current society's tribalism.
Falls' direction in the first half (Ibsen's acts one through three) has his cast doing a great deal of shouting and that, together with the generally obvious plot, makes it a little tedious. The spectacle of the second half, beginning with the mob scene chaos of the town meeting and the frightening destruction of Dr. Stockmann's house, redeems the production, however. The performances in this latter half, particularly by Johnson as Thomas Stockmann, Lanise Antoine Shelley as his wife Katherine, and Rebecca Hurd as their daughter Petra, are now much more nuanced, and highly moving.
With today's political situation, it's the perfect time to be seeing An Enemy of the People, but maybe not for the obvious reasons. Ibsen's drama, as refracted through Falls's updated script and his conceptual staging, illustrates the complexity of deciding how we are to be governed. Is the problem that the majority of voters are "stupid," or that voter participation is so low. Do non-voters believe themselves to be unqualified to choose their leaders? Is it true that only the "clever" should be entrusted with governing, or will the clever outsmart us out of everything we have? It seems Ibsen and Falls are urging us not to surrender decision-making to others, but to do the hard work of staying engaged in the political process.
An Enemy of the People, through April 15, 2018, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and further information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.