Henrik Ibsen’s serviceable drama, An Enemy of the People, may have been written for another era, another audience, but its themes feel eerily familiar. A few days after a cutthroat presidential election, where verbal barbs flew through the air like spears in a Peter Jackson movie, the two-act play seems perfectly appropriate for a 2012 audience.
The effectiveness of Ibsen’s words is due in large part to the central performance from Boyd Gaines, one of Broadway’s best treasures. As Dr. Thomas Stockman, a man much like John Proctor in The Crucible, Gaines is able to enliven the proceedings to a fever pitch. He begins the play with smiles and pleasantries, but within a few hours his joviality is torn down and his integrity seriously questioned. Watching him hang on to the last vestiges of his self-respect is an awesome theatrical experience.
The opposing force to Thomas’s stoicism is none other than the doctor’s own brother, Mayor Peter Stockman (Richard Thomas), a man who will stop at nothing to save his political career. The two dominant forces are brought together when the local spa in their Norwegian hamlet is found to be riddled with bacteria. Thomas, with all the evidence to prove it, wants the government to take immediate action. Peter preaches restraint and calmness. Why upset the people, he reasons. Why not let this blow over?
For those theatergoers unfamiliar with Ibsen’s lofty ideas, consider Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Same idea: Something drastic happens to a resort town, and the powers-that-be want to make sure nothing affects the bottom line.
Thomas, another theater treasure, takes a while, but eventually finds the right balance for his mayoral role. At first, it almost feels like he’s putting on a forced regality, wearing a top hat and sporting a cane, his diction slowly paced and careful. However, when presented in stark contrast to Thomas’s demeanor, the characterization works.
Some of the supporting characters are brought to life by talented actors. Michael Siberry, appearing in only two scenes, is perhaps the best, with his deep voice and general lack of decorum. Less effective is Kathleen McNenny as Catherine Stockmann, the doctor’s wife.
Kudos to director Doug Hughes for keeping the two-hour evening taut with suspense. During the climax of the second act, he’s able to stage a town-hall scene with exquisite dedication to detail. By placing the doctor on the edge of the stage and halfway into the audience, we become part of the poisonous majority, part of the plot. This makes Ibsen’s words immediate and engaging, probably much more than they should be.
A revival of An Enemy of the People shouldn’t feel this prophetic. It shouldn’t feel this familiar.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
An Enemy of the People
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas
Currently playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at 261 W. 47th St. in Manhattan. Click here for more information. Performances run through Sunday, Nov. 18.
Running time: 120 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.