Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review of "An Enemy of the People"

An Enemy of the People, playwright Henrik Ibsen’s powerful and absorbing drama, is one of the most relevant pieces of theater you will experience this season.  Playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 28th, this 135-year-old play has frightening parallels to the polarizing political forces, both in Connecticut and in Washington, D.C.  It also foreshadows such pulled-from-the-headline catastrophes as the recent Flint, Michigan water crisis and the battle waged by Erin Brockovich over tainted water caused by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in the early 1990’s.
Reg Rogers and Enrico Colantoni in An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, new translation by Paul Walsh, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.
The plot centers around Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), a civic-minded physician who discovers the water being piped into the recently completed health spa is toxic.  Thinking his brother (Enrico Colantoni), Mayor Peter Stockmann, will receive the news with gratitude and praise, he is stunned when the disclosure is received with contempt and harshness due, primarily, to the economic harm such a discovery would have on the resort and small Norwegian town.  Maddened by this reception, the physician enlists the support of the liberal-minded newspaper and homeowner’s association, who see this as a way to exploit their own self-serving agendas.  However, with shrewdness and subtle threats the Mayor manages to turn all party’s opinions against the doctor who refuses to put aside his convictions and, subsequently, becomes persona non-grata, an enemy of the people.

Ibsen brings eloquence and preternatural insight into this morality tale of self-righteousness, economic greed and survival.  The term “conjecture,” used time and time again to discredit the doctor’s scientific findings, eerily mirrors the false news claims over climate change within the Trump administration.  It might be stretching matters, but when the playwright speaks of the dangers of the solid majority I couldn’t help but think of the know-it-all Democratic majority within the Connecticut statehouse and their mishandling of the state budget crisis.  What happened in Flint, Michigan could have been a modern-day version of the play.  Paul Walsh’s translation has a contemporary feel full of wit, impassioned speeches and a modicum of comic moments.  Sometimes, passages and monologues can veer towards preachiness but, overall, not so much to adversely affect the brisk pace of the production.
Enrico Colantoni (foreground) and the cast of An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, new translation by Paul Walsh, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.
The fine cast is led by Reg Rogers as Dr. Thomas Stockmann.  The actor throws himself into the role with an earnest intensity and oratory prowess.  He thoroughly encapsulates the everyday individual ready to do battle—no matter what the odds--with the forces of injustice and narrowmindedness.  Think Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Enrico Colantoni, as the doctor’s politically entrenched brother, smolders with indignation over other’s slights and disrespect.  Yet he shows caginess and astuteness in his portrayal of the obfuscating official.

Director James Bundy has taken what could have been a tired and venerable play and infused it with a captivating freshness.  The large cast is lively and vigorous under his firm guidance.  The show crackles during many points, but none more than when the two brothers become confrontational.  You can sense both the love and loathing they have for each other.

An Enemy of the People, a timely and penetrating production, playing through October 28th.

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