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Enemy of the People

We're in the middle of a depression. . .Do you know what happens to towns that lose their primary industry?
— Peter Stockmann, trying to make his brother, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, see the need to not be hasty about closing the town's money producing but dangerously polluted baths— in other words, to accept that this medical emergency is also a potentiall y disastrous financial emergency.
And that's what I'm going to talk about this evening. . .the discovery that all of our spiritual springs are poisoned and that the whole of our society rests on a plague-infected body of lies.
—Thomas Stockmann's desperate and bitter last speech after his brotherand his former friends persuade the towns people to support their refusal to have the toxic report's details made public. Stockmann's speech embodies his realization that cleaning up the poisoned spa waters was impossible as long as it was up to a morally flawed society to do so.

The above quotes more or less sum up what Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People is about: A moral man who refuses to compromise what he considers to be a dire medical emergency that demands immediate fixing even if the price of paying for it means lost business and increased taxes. The influential people who opt for a more cautious approach include his own brother who's running for a third term as town mayor; his father-in-law, whose tanneries are likely to face financial losses and law suits; and the journalists fearful of losing readers. Thanks to a self-absorbed, easily swayed public, the pragmatists prevail.

Ibsen, though unquestionably, one of the twentieth century's most socially relevant dramatists, can be a bit dour and hard to take in full-featured 2 1/2 to 3-hour mode. And "An Enemy of the People," with its dramatized polemical fireworks is no exception.

The story of Dr. Thomas Stockmann's disillusioning battle to rid the bathhouse in the town he grew up in and loves of its deadly pollutants even at the cost of endangering the town's economic well-being was Ibsen's response to the moralistic denunciation of the syphillis issue in Ghosts. Through this idealistic but naive Norwegian whistle blower, Ibsen pointed his pen at the poorly formulated opinions of the masses, the manipulation of the media and the overall hypocrisy of a me-first society.

Throughout the hundred and twenty years since it was written, An Enemy of the People has remained about as disturbingly true to life as a play can get. It seems more torn from the headlines now than ever. No wonder then that the Barrow Group's artistic director Seth Barrish and K. Lorring Manning thought the time ripe to not just revive it, but to do so with a streamlined, colloquial adaption that would intensify its dispiriting paralells to life in 2010.

This new adaptation, does retain the essence of Ibsen's text and proves that the play can work even on a small scale. The adapters do no serious harm by paring down of the dramatic personae (e.g., the Stockmann sons) and making editor Hovstadt a woman in order to have a more powerful and prominent female presence in the story. On the other hand, they don't add anything especially memorable.

The absence of any townspeople other than the key characters is a physical necessity in a tiny theater such as the TBA. The small seating capacity and the semi-thrust stage actually puts the audience close enough to the action and quite effectively makes them part of the fourth act town hall meeting. Having the actors take turns metamorphosing into a narrating Greek chorus works pretty well to bring the play to a quick conclusion at the end of that climactic fourth act. Unfortunately, the use of the actor-narrator device seems totally superfluous at the beginning.

As for the modernization of the language, the colloquial dialogue is often jarring, especially in the opening scene when the editors of the liberal newspapers are gathered at Dr. Stockmann's home for dinner. This might be a minor flaw if the actors speaking these lines were more at ease in their roles. And that brings us to the reason it's hard to make a final judgment of this adaptation: Mr. Manning wearing his director's hat more often than not sabotages this production.

While no one expects fancy sets or costumes from a company on a limited budget, innovative directors triumph over such constraints all the time. Not so Manning and production designer Kate Rance. Their attempt to create a uniform modern look with touches of Ibsen's era comes off as just plain odd and ugly. The setting is appropriately simple (some vaguely Scandinavian looking tables and chairs) but the big problem with everything about this newly adapted and almost too timely play is Mr. Manning's failure to draw more effective performances from the actors. The title character's inflexible goodness, his complex relationship with his conservative brother, his shattered trust in the intelligence of the "majority" are lost in Larry Mitchell's one-note performance. Neither do Edward Connors, Eliza Foss or Jeremy Folmer convey the complexities that make the shift in the journalists' allegiance from the selfless Stockmann to the self-serving Stockmann less abrupt.

To be fair, the static performances do catch some fire during the town meeting which ends up with the undiplomatic Dr. Stockmann attacking the very people he once trusted to join him in doing the right thing. This scene gives Katherine Neuman, the good doctor's wife, a chance to briefly show some emotional depth but with the fifth act slashed, the finale belongs Stockmann and his daughter Petra (Clare Schmidt).

And so, this Enemy of the People has both an un-Ibsenlike beginning and ending. To start things of a narrator who also plays Stockmann's rich father-in-law Mr. Kill (Herbert Rubens) declares "So. . .Long ago, but not too long ago—in a village far away, but not too far away—an extraordinary thing happened. It began one Sunday evening. A Sunday night like any other really— at least in this town," After these extraordinary events play out, we watch Ibsen's drama shift into a decidedly Chekhovian mood.

Enemy of the People
Henrik Ibsen's play adapted by Seth Barrish and K. Lorrel Manning, directed by Manning
Cast: Edward Connors (John Aslaksen), Larry Mitchell (Dr. Thomas Stockmann), Katherine Neuman (Catherine Stockmann), Myles O'Connor (Peter Stockmann)), Clare Schmidt (Petra Stockmann), Eliza Foss (Linda Hovstadt), Jeremy Folmer (Greg Billing),Herbert Rubens (Mr. Kill).
Production Designer: Kate Rance
Stage Manager: Kate Erin Gibson
Running Time: 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission
Barrow Group Theatre Company TBG 312 W/ 37 Street. 3rd floor 212-868-4444
From 2/06/10; closing 3/08/10.
Friday thru Monday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 3pm.
Tickets are $25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer February 8th
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