Chicago Theater Review: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 20, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

CAGE-MATCH COMBAT: IBSEN VS. TRUMP

Right now, the biggest prize fight in Chicago is at Randolph and Dearborn. More polemically urgent than psychologically penetrating, a new treatment of Henrik Ibsen’sAn Enemy of the People — adapted and directed by Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls — is a powder keg that ignites a munitions factory.

In 140 minutes this fiercely faithful semi-update (the set says today but the costumes suggest the 19th century) pulls no punches and takes no prisoners: It prosecutes into the present Ibsen’s credo that the majority is always wrong: Truth belongs to an unashamed elite. Put the play in the context of the 2016 election and its ugly aftermath — and the outcome is obvious.

Placing the story in an unacknowledged time and place, Falls concentrates on the choices faced by this nameless burg. Like the fateful decision in Jaws of the tourist-town residents of Amity Island not to close their money-making beach against a great white shark, a bitter clash defines these folks more sharply than quirks or temperaments. And, as Arthur Miller showed in The Crucible and All My Sons, corruption begins in the family.

Sibling rivalry is too weak a word for the feud between Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Chicago veteran Philp Earl Johnson), medical officer of the mineral springs that are the town’s main economy, and his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (Scott Jaeck, transformed into a human pitbull). To exacerbate the squabble, Thomas’ pregnant wife Katherine (Lanise Antoine Shelley, caught in the crossfire) is the daughter of Morton Kiil (a snarling David Darlow), owner of the town’s biggest tannery. Conflicts of interest abound as Thomas imprudently boasts that he knows the spa’s secret sin: Its supposedly healing waters are polluted with E coli and more, contamination supplied in part by the effluents from the factory of Thomas’ father-in-law. Talk about all in the family!

There’s no middle ground in this showdown over the future of this “last resort,” so to speak. Will the city fathers, whose income is other people’s R&R, shut down the springs for massive plumbing repairs and lose visitors to competing destinations? Or, ironically enough, will they rely on the town’s doctor Thomas to cure the customers who arrive healthy and leave sick? (Think Flint, Michigan.)

At first Thomas doesn’t seem all that deluded in thinking the town will throw a parade to thank him for his preventive expose. His schoolteacher daughter Petra (feisty Rebecca Hurd) is proud of her whistleblowing dad. Hovstad (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez), editor of the “People’s Messenger,” pledges his support, as does his idealistic reporter (Jesse Bhamrah). The head of the local small-business men Aslaksen (Allen Gilmore) appreciates Thomas’ anti-establishment shenanigans, at least until the essential repairs mean higher taxes. Later, even a drunk (Larry Neumann, Jr.) will salute Thomas’ crusade against the burg’s entrenched 1%.

But slowly the tide turns, as Ibsen/Falls cunningly depict. It all depends on whose ox gets gored. Censorship, coverups and dishonest compromises rear their ugly heads. The mayor fulminates against publishing bad news about the hot springs, putting investors’ interests first and exerting advertising pressure on the malleable newspaper printer (Gilmore).

It all comes to a horrible head in the second act’s massive town meeting (extras galore, including some of Chicago’s finest actors). A tad heavy-handed but corrosively true to Ibsen’s 1882 rage, this cat-calling circus becomes a stationary pogrom to all but lynch Thomas Stockmann for telling the truth. He’s demonized with the play’s traitorous title. (Traitor was also the name of Brett Neveu’s 2016 updating for A Red Orchid Theatre.) He’s lambasted as a trouble-making purveyor of “fake facts,” elitist disinformation, and assorted treachery against the town.

Of course, this is toxically familiar in 2018. Even more so is Johnson’s magnificent rebuttal: Thomas incites his ruin by smearing the town with a speech accusing these moral pigmies of bending to their “betters.”  To the plaintive objection from an ally, “What’s the use of being right if you don’t have the power?”, Thomas declares that that is the power. By definition the herd is always heading toward some slaughter — bad faith or bad water. He calls his enemies hand-licking deplorables and disrupters, minions of an oligarchy that profits from poison. (Anti-government deregulation, privatization, cost-cutting, anyone?) Unsurprisingly, Thomas is fired, with the implication that a non-disclosure agreement will silence him in the future as well.

In the final, somewhat repetitious, final scene, we glimpse the irredeemably fractured Stockmann clan in their literally broken home. Thomas is again black-mailed, this time over his wife’s inheritance. (Kiil has a crack-brained scheme to buy the spa’s stocks short and sell them high, assuming that a compliant Thomas removes any hint of ecological scandal.)

By now, alas, it’s too late. As the song in Ragtime puts it, “We can never go back to before.”

Goodman’s Ibsen is strong and unsubtle stuff, powered by kinetic performances from the principals and a cinematic ensemble as the spineless citizens. Thomas’s “resistance” can’t help but feel like now. Like Miller’s reluctantly brave Thomas Proctor, this Thomas has only his name and integrity to prize and protect, just as much as the water supply. No, he can’t make this town great again but he can speak truth to power. 136 years later, kudos to Ibsen for continuing to fight our battles.

photos by Liz Lauren

An Enemy of the People
Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on April 15, 2018
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nikki Smith March 22, 2018 at 9:05 pm

Chicago theater at its best. Great review.

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