I don’t know whether to be more relieved or depressed by the acute timeliness of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of An Enemy of the People. On the one hand, Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 script tells us that people in power have acted against common sense and the public good at least since then, and Arthur Miller’s 1950 update makes it clear that the problems were the same in his era–in other words, our time, though out of joint, with its spyware and its science-deniers and its ghastly secret fracking chemicals and its brave, unworldly warriors like Edward Snowden, is not anomalous in history. On the other, humanity has not made much noticeable improvement in itself since Ibsen penned his blistering critique of the politics of power and money in the everlasting joust between the truth-armed individual and an obtuse majority.
Directed by Tom Quaintance, the PlayMakers company and guest artists give Enemy an intense immediacy, highlighted by the astute design choices (McKay Coble, set, and Patrick Holt, costumes) that place it in the 1950s, but also in the 2015 infatuated with “mid-century modern” and snap brim hats. Quaintance has paced the show for clarity and, without excess, for maximum wallop, allowing the excellent actors to work naturally in Ibsen’s and Miller’s tautly drawn situations in which their characters’ psychologies must be dissected. It’s the most satisfying show of the PRC’s 2014-15 season thus far.
Briefly, the storyline is: Dr. Stockmann (Michael Bryan French, naive, flustered and implacable) has with his brother (naturally, it needs to be his brother) the Mayor, Peter Stockmann (Anthony Newfield, neurotic, politically skilled and implacable) have created a spa that’s bringing economic hope to their town. But after everything is built, the doctor discovers that the water is dangerously polluted. When the play opens, he’s just received the test results from the university, and he’s all set to tell the world, so that the healing spa waters won’t sicken anyone. The Mayor’s having none of that!
On hand to make the most of this conflict are a firebrand newspaper editor, Hovstad (Benjamin Curns) and a high-strung reporter (Gregory DeCandia) and their waffling editor, Aslaksen (Jeffrey Blair Cornell, just perfect) ready to twist in whatever way will benefit them the most. The doctor’s eccentric father-in-law, Morten Kiil (David Adamson, fiendishly good) bumbles around the edges, looking for the spot to drive in a wedge. The doctor does have a family who love and support and hector him–Julia Gibson as Katherine Stockmann and Allison Altman as their daughter Petra also keep the testosterone levels from becoming too overwhelming. All these excitable people in this little town are counterbalanced by the doctor’s friend, the taciturn sea captain Horster (Derrick Ivey), who’s been about the world and seen places where people weren’t allowed to speak their minds. He didn’t like that.
Ivey continues to amaze. Here he stands like granite, so dense he draws your eye again and again, even though he has only a handful of lines. His Captain Horster contains a vital paradox: He stands behind the doctor not because he understands anything he’s on about, but because he believes he is free to say it. Yet if that’s not the way it’s to be, he’ll morph from the stable to the flowing, and take them all to freedom in America. (That’s about the only thing in the play that seems dated, that belief in a bighearted, clear-thinking America.)
The production was slightly marred on opening night by some technical difficulties involving smoke and water, and maybe the mob could use a few more bodies (although John Allore, as the drunk, is a host in himself), but it’s a powerful play, powerfully done. It runs only through March 15 in the Paul Green Theater. Tickets online or call 919-962-7529.
You can read the play, with a good introduction by Arthur Miller, here.
Most readers will already know that PlayMakers has announced the forthcoming departure of company producing artistic director Joseph Haj this July, when he will leave Chapel Hill for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. If not, see Byron Wood’s Indyweek piece here. I’d hoped we’d get to keep Haj for a couple of more years–he’s been a very positive force for this theater scene, beyond transforming PlayMakers. See my 2010 feature on Haj for a sense of how far we’ve come, and how lucky the Twin Cites will be to have him there. Bye, Joe.
Now the question is–who will be the next PRC artistic director? And–when?