Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

An Enemy of the People
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of This Bitter Earth and Arty's reviews of The Princess' Nightingale and The Good Person of Szechwan


Ricardo Chavira and Billy Carter
Photo by Caitlin Schlick
If not for the well-known fact that 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in 1882, Brad Birch's adaptation of the play that premiered last week on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage could easily pass for a brand new work. It presents itself as a topical commentary on the devaluation of science, of "alternative facts," denial of environmental degradation, and the ability of those with money to prevail over those armed with only the truth. In fact, Birch, who is Welsh, scripted an adaptation of Ibsen's original just two years ago, produced at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, under the Norwegian title En Folkefiende. The current Guthrie production is not a mere remount of that staging, but an updated and revised version of it, a revision of the adaptation of the original.

Any given production of An Enemy of the People might be considered a theatrical Rorschach test for the times in which it is played. The play has had frequent adaptations, most notably Arthur Miller's script that premiered on Broadway in 1950, foreshadowing his concern with McCarthyism and Red-baiting more fully realized in The Crucible. Just this spring, a new adaptation by Robert Falls played the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Setting the play in 2018 in a mid-size city, Birch compresses Ibsen's five acts into 90 swift minutes, building like the stream of curative waters channeled from a local mountaintop into the baths of the town's about-to-open health resort. The project is geared to revitalize a community that has suffered high unemployment and demoralization since its paper mill closed.

The play opens in the home of Dr. Tom Stockman, a biochemist who has gave up a tenured university post to oversee the healthfulness of the spa's waters. Tom is late for a party at his own home. Among the guests are his brother Peter, the city mayor who won election based on a promise to bring back jobs, prosperity and hope by way of the new spa. Other guests include Kate's wealthy brother Morton, who may have a stake in the spa; a promising young writer named Billing whom Kate has taken under wing as a patron; and Tom and Kate's daughter Petra, a directionless college drop-out battling with her demons armed with large amounts of alcohol. Also present, though uninvited, is Hovstad, an investigative journalist slumming by writing a puff piece profiling the eminent Dr. Stockman.

When Tom arrives we finally learn the cause of his delay: a report indicates that the water at the spa is toxic. His brother wants to know how it can be fixed, while Tom's concern is how dangerously high levels of copper got there. The fix versus the source, the expediency of politics versus the scientific truth, becomes the conflict that puts these brothers at odds, pushes Tom's marriage to the breaking point, and challenges the integrity of the journalist and her publisher. Birch does well framing Tom's stand for truth as a dual-edged sword.

The script speaks directly to our most current issues, using phrases such as "alternative facts" and "you can't buy your own science" that are straight out of our evening news. It also paints broadly the flaws in the nominal hero, Tom, too wedded to the truth to realize that only negotiated, not absolute, solutions are viable in the marketplace. He skids into elitism, railing against the public as ignorant of these complex issues, and thus easily swayed by short-term gain.

For all of its relevance and urgency, this Enemy of the People is cold, its potency undermined by positions and plotlines so starkly drawn as to emphasize arguments at the expense of feelings. Tom Stockman anoints himself a savior, but to those around him he is a madman. There is no middle ground for him to be an effective player in solving the problem at hand.

Director Lyndsey Turner has given Birch's An Enemy of the People a gripping physical production. The settings by scenic designer Merle Hensel include white walls that move in a sort of structural ballet as the turntable stage revolves, suggesting a fluidity in human-built environments that, for the indoor scenes, resolve into sterile rooms—Tom's study, the newspaper office, a meeting room—with angular furnishings that look sleek, expensive and uncomfortable. Rising behind the one outdoor setting is a massive painting (from a photo by Norwegian photographer Bjørg-Elise Tuppen) of a foreboding mountain that juts out of the earth, declaring dominance over the tame flatlands surrounding it.

Costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo has given all of the characters but Tom somber black and white attire for the opening party scene; Tom arrives dressed for the woods in a bright red plaid shirt one might find in L.L.Bean. He is at once set apart from all of the others. Kate Stockman plays party hostess in a prim white blouse and a massive dark skirt that funnels out from her trim waist to claim a diameter of several feet as she bustles among the guests. Jane Cox's evocative lighting design and the music and soundscape by Broken Chord further add to the narrative's constantly rising tension.

The eight actors are a sterling blend of familiar faces and actors new to the Twin Cities. Billy Carter occupies the eye of the storm as Tom Stockman, with the ruffled appearance of an academic immersed in his field. Carter reveals the painful process by which Stockman transforms from rational scientist to raving crusader. As Kate Stockman, Sarah Agnew's keen intelligence works to sublime effect, struggling to balance support for her husband with a desire to maintain her place in the community. The manner in which she cautions him that he has already uprooted the family by coming to work at his brother's enterprise draws a clear line as to the limits of her devotion.

Ricardo Chavira plays Peter Stockman, the mayor whose civic leadership and entrepreneurial ambitions blur uncomfortably together, a clear snapshot of politics circa 2018. Hovstad is written as a male role, but here Mo Perry plays the part, instilling the reporter with tough ambition that nips at the boundaries of journalistic integrity. Zachary Fine delivers Morton's sense of aloof superiority and the voice of moral relativism. As Petra, Christian Bardin paints a painful image of a lost child who sees her place in the world far more clearly than her parents. She seeks her father's understanding and instead is drawn in to provide him with comfort. J.C. Cutler is perfectly suited to the role of Aslaksen, the crusty publisher. Billing the novelist is well played by Zarif Kabier, as he works through his blocked creativity by paring away artifice and focusing on the truth of his story, in contrast to the turmoil truth-telling brings to Tom Stockman.

The Guthrie's An Enemy of the People will certainly be remembered for its stark design. Birch's take on it may well prove popular among regional theaters over the next few seasons, being so topical and baldly linked to our political moment. Because the rhetoric overwhelms the inner humanity of its protagonist, it may not seem as highly charged a decade from now. But, as many other playwrights have found, Ibsen's great play is a template, ready to lend itself to the latest wave of civic choke points.

An Enemy of the People, through June 3, 2018, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $77.00. Rush seats, when available, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For ticket information call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Written by Henrik Ibsen, with a new adaptation by Brad Birch; Director: Lyndsey Turner; Scenic Design: Merle Hensel; Costume Design: Brenda Abbandandolo; Lighting Design: Jane Cox; Original Music and Sound Design: Broken Chord; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Director: Taous Claire Khazem; Design Assistants: Polly Bilski (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound).

Cast: Sarah Agnew (Kate Stockman), Christian Bardin (Petra Stockman), Billy Carter (Tom Stockman), Ricardo Chavira (Peter Stockman), J.C. Cutler (Aslaksen), Zachary Fine (Morton), Zarif Kabier (Billing), Mo Perry (Hovstad).


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