Friday, September 28, 2012

An Enemy of the People: Stay Out of the Water

"Bureaucrats and lackeys" are readily on display in this play by Henrik Ibsen.   In a time where issues of the evil and selfishness of corporations or the greed of the elite are at the forefront of our political discourse, it makes sense why MTC would stage An Enemy of the People now.  This new adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and directed by Doug Hughes has a core story that would be resonant to modern audiences, but the play ends up too blunt, too heavy-handed in its messaging.  I had no idea it was the inspiration for Jaws but now knowing this I see the strong connections throughout.  But this production a toothless shark I'm afraid.  Gumming but no bite. 

When a spa town doctor, Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines) discovers that the waters supplying the spa are more dangerous than helpful, he brings his discovery to the radical newspaper publisher in town, Hovstad (John Procaccino) who'd like to see the current town administration brought to their knees with the news of this epic folly.  But the doctor has faith that his brother, Peter Stockmann (Richard Thomas) the mayor of the town, will address this health risk accordingly and no scandal need come from it.  But when Thomas raises the issue with the mayor, money, allegiances, and personal risk end up taking the front seat, and personal principles the back seat.  Allies he thought he had abandon him and everyone's concerns over their own personal pocketbook becomes the driving reason for the actions they take. 

I've never seen or read this play before.  I read an interview in Exeunt Magazine with the writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz about her process for adapting this particular work.  From that interview I was struck by the fact that her adaptation is supposed to be laced with ambiguity.  The political process is a morass of compromise and short-term game playing.  There is ambiguity in that but the play did not really dwell on that.  None of the characters seemed to embody that point of view.  Instead our players took very strong stances in one camp or another and that rigidity and fixed perspective failed to engage me.  Everything felt like it was painted a little too black and white so that the drama of the grays--emotional, philosophical, political--was absent.  I got a bit bored with these extreme camps.

There was some interesting debate when the doctor brings his research to the town radicals.  But the radicals shift their allegiance too quickly to be believed.  At the drop of a dime (and giving the audience a severe case of whiplash) they go from ally to enemy.  The reason is clearly given but then they become simply like everyone else in town: driven by self-interest.  Not that that is not a possible outcome but the journey there is too abrupt.  It is left to the doctor to fight everyone but he's not so noble or pure.  The battle was not David versus Goliath, or even man versus shark.  SPOILER ALERT--It was a little like watching a mosquito and a bug zapper.  The outcome felt just a little too inevitable. 

I was excited to see Boyd Gaines again after his terrific turn in The Columnist.  There was much to like in his performance as the highly emotional doctor with his manic child-like energy.   Dr. Thomas Stockmann is flighty and overwrought: possibly manic-depressive, definitely given to emotional oscillation.  But as presented I thought his science was sound, even if he was not all of the time.  He might think of himself as a man of principles but he's certainly not a thinker.  His inability to reason around the issues or appreciate another point of view was key to his character.  Gaines plays the doctor as a smart man who makes poor choices.  His intelligence as an actor helps make the doctor's situation more tragic.  He cannot see how his own impetuousness interferes with his professional, social and financial progress.  Even when he does, he cannot stop it.  But his fine, nuanced performance was not enough for me to fully engage in the play.

The supporting cast was strong.  I enjoyed the vacillating newspaper type-setter Aslaksen played with great comic flourish by Gerry Bamman.  I liked John Procaccino even if his character's choices did not add up for me.  Kathleen McNenny (Boyd Gaines's wife in life and in the play) was lovely as the put-upon wife of the doctor, desperate for a stable place in the world for her family.  Richard Thomas plays the mayor in such a smarmy way that I just kept waiting for him to twirl his evil mustache. It was pomposity of the highest order but it came on too thick.

It's a bold choice to stage this lesser known Ibsen play and it is a respectable production of it.  I just found it a bit dull overall and wished for a more nuanced exploration of the interesting issues presented.  


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