Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Erin Brockovich, Edwin Snowden, and Chelsea Manning are some of the more recent whistleblowers whose stories are widely known through a constant barrage of news accounts and/or movies made to tell their stories. However, whistleblowing as a concept and an actual term goes back to the nineteenth century (think of police blowing whistles to warn of trouble in the town square). In 1877, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen took on the subject in a play that is as current today as this morning's headlines. In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen tells of a public-spirited, altruistic doctor, Dr. Stockmann, who discovers his town's famed bathsthe source of the community's tourist incomeare in fact highly contaminated and toxic. Rebecca Lenkiewicz has stripped Ibsen's original play of some of its extraneous moralizing and sidetracks for a slimmer version that brings the nineteenth century story right into 2017 relevance. Pear Theatre is now staging this 2008 adaptation in which costumes denote a yesteryear long past, but language, circumstances, reactions, and accusations/counter-accusations smack of today.
The similarity of this town's water issues to the contamination in Flint, Michigan, or to a recent New York Times article that one in four Americans may be drinking tap water unsafe to drink is astounding. The treatment that Dr. Stockmann gets in the play is eerily similar to how Brockovich, Snowden, Manning, and scores of other recent whistleblowers have been treated once they have exposed what they see as the truth.
But as one character in the play notes, "Everyone is petrified of the truth." Dr. Stockmann discovers, like so many whistleblowers before and after him, that the truth does not always set you free. In his case, early supporters of his exposing the contaminationincluding the town's crusading newspaper editor Hovstad and other liberal, anti-government voices of the townare shockingly quick to switch sides when pocketbook implications become clearer. And as sides switch, voices increase to make the whistleblower the enemy, the one seeking his own fame and attention, leading to a strange coalition of former foes now banded together to discredit and even run out of town the once-respected man whose original concern was their safety and the continued good name of the town.
Now, just how familiar does this work of fiction sound to story after story each of us has read in recent years? Just change the name of this Nordic town to PG&E, the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, the NSA, Halliburton, or dozens of other entities large and small. Ibsen calls out the oft-tyranny of the fickle majority ("Majority truths are like rotting meat") while at the same time, he shows that the whistleblower can also become overly stubborn and ever-more outlandish in reactions to the private/public sentiment faced to the "truths" he or she has exposed.
The relevance of this Pear Theatre revisit of a nineteenth century play can thus hardly be questioned. A play that relies on the exchange of heated words and less on actions, An Enemy of the People as directed by Elizabeth Kruse Craig is increasingly tense and "in your face," even drawing the audience into being members of a town hall meeting to render judgment on Dr. Stockmann and his revelations of contamination. That latter device works only average, in my opinion, making the meeting more funny and false that the situation calls for, as some members of the audience raise their voices (often in half snickers of slight embarrassment) to take one side or the other. The effect becomes distracting from the action on the stage itself.
Further, the heated exchanges of words are too often delivered in only one fashion: shouting at the top of one's lungs. While emotions do run high on both sides of the arguments presented, the constant blaring of raised voices decreases the impact and, frankly, led me too often to check out for a few minutes here and there, especially in the first act.
While some characters from Ibsen's original play have been trimmed in Ms. Lenkiewicz's adaptation, the sizable cast of eleven adequately fills the stage with all the emotions, arguments and accusations needed to tell the story. To a person, this cast does a good job representing the various views and shifting views, and each has moments to shine. However, there is an overall unevenness of delivery; at times the many words of Ibsen seem more recited than genuinely felteven when delivered in raised, infuriated voices.
From a production standpoint, the Pear staging is quite excellent in every respect. Norm Beamer's multi-level set allows for several scenes in different rooms to occur seamlessly; and his overall, modern-looking treatment helps in making this version current and not confined to 150 years ago. Raised, framed windows provide Meghan Souther wonderful opportunities to create lighting effects that show graphically the twisting and turning of truths and facts. Caroline Clark's sound effects are well timed and realistic, and quickly remind us of current soundtracks we may hear of protests in both meeting rooms and the streets.
There is much to think about in leaving Pear Theatre's updated An Enemy of the People. How vicious and wrong can a majority be? What is the role of the plagued whistleblower who often faces much personal loss and even danger in broadcasting a concern for public safety? In this modern adaptation, Dr. Stockmann leaves us with a clear message: "I'll keep telling the truth; it is the majority who are the enemy of freedom." And given current attacks from our highest leaders on the First Amendment and on the freedom of the press, Dr. Stockmann probably speaks for most of the Pear audience when he says, "I worry about the future and who will speak the truth."
Kudos go to the Pear Theatre for reminding us that exposure of hidden harms to the public is any citizen's duty and that all must realize that the consequences of not doing so are actually much worse than those that may likely occur in doing so.
An Enemy of the People continues through November 12, 2017, at Pear Theatre at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.