An Enemy of the People at Barrington Stage

Arthur Miller Adapted Henrik Ibsen

By: - Oct 06, 2014

An Enemy of the People
By Arthur Miller
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Julianne Boyd
Scenic design, David M. Barber; Costumes, Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting, Scott Pinkney; Sound, Brad Berridge; Director of production, Jeff Roudabush; Production stage manager, Marjorie Ann Wood
Cast: Christopher Hirsh (Billing), Glenn Barrett (Morten Kiil), Dee Nelson (Catherine Stickmann), Patrick Husted (Peter Stockman), Scott Drummond (Hovstad), Steve Hendrickson (Thomas Stockmann), Noah Bailey (Morten Stockmann), Joey LaBrasca (Ejlif Stockmann), Don Paul Shannon (Captain Horster), Katya Stepanov (Petra Stockmann), Jack Wetherall (Aslaksen), Brian Litscher (3rd Citizen), Rosalind Cramer (2nd Citizen), Tony Pallone (Drunk)
Boyd-Quinson Mainstage
Barrington Stage Company
October 2-19, 2014

During the fall shoulder season Barrington Stage features message plays creating a community dialogue particularly in coordination with the region’s schools.

An Enemy of the People, directed by Julianne Boyd through October 19, with talk backs, panels and student matinees, is a corker.

Yet again the company strongly reminds us that theatre has the potential for social and political conscience with the power to influence hearts and minds.

Ibsen’s play was written in 1882 and restaged by Arthur Miller in 1950 during the red bating hysteria of McCarthyism. It focuses on the issue that Kirsten Springs developed as baths with curing elements is in fact polluted by an upstream tannery. Instead of healing and fortifying tourists and the afflicted flocking to the spa and boosting the local economy it may be a source for disease and epidemics.

During the previous season a number of visitors became ill. It was argued that they had prior conditions.

The play was selected precisely for its relevance to the Pittsfield and Berkshire community for which the cleanup of toxic waste from the formerly dominant General Electric continues to be a hot button issue.

On October 12 at 5:30 PM there will be a panel addressing the topic Housatonic River Clean-Up: What’s Next?

In the late 19th century Ibsen was prescient in calling attention to industries located next to rivers and streams. Water was used as a resource for power and energy as well as a dump for the runoff of toxic waste. Then and now key concerns are jobs and profits measured against long term consequences for the environment and health. Rivers, such as the severely polluted Housatonic, run into oceans contaminating fish and wild life, impacting the water we drink and food we eat.

With global population now exploded to 7 billion we are fast reaching the tipping point that will inevitably lead to mass extinction. While the earth is billions of years old, in the plausible time frame of some 30,000 years, the human species has proven to be the only one that fouls its nest. Given the unchecked acceleration of population expansion, lack of stringent regulation, ineffective use of non fossil energy resources, and pervasive greed oceans and the atmosphere are ever more finite and unstable.

Reworking the play in the 1950s Miller, arguably the most strident and courageous playwright of his generation, focused on how rational science and progressive ecology, were sabotaged by a cabal of business and government, rallying the people to crush dissent.

The play takes no prisoners as the morally motivated truth seeker and scientist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Steve Hendrickson), is betrayed by the radical/ liberal media represented by a turncoat firebrand editor Hovstad (Scott Drummond) and weak kneed, moderate, publisher Aslaksen (Jack Wetherall).

The challenge is that high minded and progressive ideas must conflate into compelling theatre. There is an acute difference between an academic lecture hall and performing a drama in front of an audience.

Early on, with wordy exposition, it was difficult to become involved and stay focused.

Boyd has opted to set her play in a small Scandinavian village in the 1950s. That equated to a mostly gray and enervating set by David M. Barber. It was appropriate to the period and mood of the intensive drama but the total absence of color tended to exsanguinate the senses. The furniture attempted to evoke Swedish Modern but resulted in a superannuated knockoff sensibility. The costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti were suitable to the period but drab. Perhaps her most inventive design was for the young Petra Stockmann (Katya Stepanov) which combined with braided tight hair made the young school teacher look more prim and matronly than bright and attractive.

The first scene in the home of Dr. Stockman was busy with characters combining family and friends for informal dining. One had to pay close attention to catch the drift of developing conflict.

Initially, we don’t know what to make of Morten Kiil (Glenn Barrett) the father of Mrs. Stockmann (Dee Nelson). We learn that he lives frugally but has deep pockets. Ibsen has him pilfering apples and filling his pouch with “borrowed” tobacco. This cheap character will appear explosively in the second act in a self serving scheme for profit and an ultimatum for his son in law.

Ibsen/ Miller cast the brothers Thomas and Peter (Patrick Husted), the Mayor of the small community, as Kane and Abel. Husted, well played as a one dimensional villain, was booed during curtain calls (he didn’t seem to mind) while his brother, the good doctor, earned a hearty standing O.

The Mayor sees a bright future for the community with jobs and prosperity for all. He envisions the development of small business along the main street. This dream is threatened by his brother’s report that the newly developed resource must be torn down and rebuilt with a treatment facility. Through nepotism Thomas sits on the board and is employed by the newly formed corporation.

If the changes that Thomas demands are to be met it will mean shutting down for two years and a municipal bond with higher taxes to fund the necessary waste treatment facilities. These changes can occur gradually, Peter argues, if only his brother will be reasonable.

For the altruistic scientist and physician putting the public at risk is unconscionable. When, for fear of causing the extinction of the town, the paper rescinds its offer to publish the report Dr. Stockmann decides to go public with a town meeting. The Mayor, of course, will offer no municipal facility. It will be held in the home of a friend Captain Horster (Don Paul Shannon).

The second act begins explosively and triumphantly as brilliantly staged and directed by Boyd. Actors planted in the audience surround us with a sense of the angry mob that turns on the conveyor of truth as an Enemy of the People.

This aspect of the production was thrilling and enthralling. It was particularly brave and bold during the eras of Ibsen and Miller. Today, well, it’s a bit strident and histrionic. The demarcation of good and evil is a bit too sharply black and white. More often, like the color scheme of the design of this production, it is gray. Or, in the words of Aslaksen, moderate.

Today there is a blurring of the polarities of politics. In Miller’s day liberals went to prison for sedition. Nowadays, white collar criminals on Wall Street plunder small investors, get massive government bailouts, and annual seven figure bonuses. Greed is hard at work concocting another unchecked blow to the average American. Obama had an opportunity to reign in Wall Street and blew it.

What else is new?

As President Calvin Coolidge said “After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.”

Miller makes the point of truth standing up to the opinion of the people when they are wrong. He reveals how a democracy of public opinion can devolve into the frenzy of an irrational mob. In 1950, when he adapted the play, we had recently triumphed over fascism only to face the mass hysteria of domestic anti Communism.

Ever since then liberal has been denigrated as a dirty word.

Unfortunately, this strong play and its wonderful production preaches to the converted. The folks who should be exposed to it won’t bother to purchase tickets.

Most encouragingly An Enemy of the People will be seen by school groups and young minds not yet turned to pudding by social media and the ad campaigns of the Koch Brothers.