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An Enemy of the People – Gene Frankel Theatre, New York

Writer: Henrik Ibsen

Director: Jeff Wise

Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell

Focused on themes of political corruption, environmental and economic disaster, and media responsibility, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is still remarkably pertinent 135 years after its earliest productions. Wheelhouse Theater Company’s production at the Gene Frankel Theatre highlights the continued relevance of Ibsen’s play.

At the center of An Enemy of the People is the Stockman family; Dr. Thomas Stockman (Michael Schantz), his wife Katherine (Stacey Linnartz), and their schoolteacher daughter Petra (Christina Toth) live in a small coastal town where new municipal baths—a project the doctor has helped plan—are about to open. Under the leadership of the mayor–Dr. Stockman’s brother Peter (David Kenner)–the townspeople expect that these new baths will help revitalize the town’s economy. Dr. Stockman, however, has discovered that the water for these new baths is contaminated, requiring years of repairs before the baths can open. Hovstad (Ben Graney), the editor of the local paper, agrees to publish Dr. Stockman’s findings, but his printer Aslaksan (Joshua David Robinson) who exercises some editorial control over the paper expresses reservations about any actions that might upset town leaders. As the play progresses, Stockman faces increasing opposition to his findings from his brother and eventually the townspeople, who label him “an enemy of the people” during a town meeting. His wife and daughter stand by him, but everyone else shuns him as he pledges to stay and fight for what he knows is right.

Under the direction of Jeff Wise, Wheelhouse Theater Company presents a trimmed version of Ibsen’s play with staging that is reminiscent of Our Town—all actors remain onstage throughout the play, sometimes serving as coat hooks or furniture. Atmospheric sounds like the clank of cutlery against plates, or cacophony of typewriters in a newspaper office, are provided live by performers rather than pre-recorded. Once staging conventions are established, these choices serve the play well, emphasizing that every member of the community plays some role in the events that unfold. This production also cuts out several lesser characters. This choice works for the most part, but eliminating the character of Katherine Stockman’s father (or grandfather, depending on the translation) Morten Kiil creates some confusion, particularly in the final scene of the show, where he is mentioned but does not show up himself to confront Dr. Stockman. 

The acting in the play is solid throughout. Every member of the cast does a fine job of shifting from set piece to character seamlessly as they enter a scene. In particular, Joshua David Robinson’s turn as Aslaksan is impressive—the character of the printer can be easy to lose sight of, as he promotes moderation among louder voices, but Robinson’s Aslaksan commands attention without chewing the scenery. Though there’s no explicit reference to location, Brittany Vasta’s simple, functional set tips its hat to the play’s Scandinavian roots with great use of blonde wood tones that complement Christopher Metzger’s neutral costumes. The time period suggested by the costumes is ambiguous, which, like the trimming of characters, is mostly but not uniformly effective—the mayor’s top hat feels a bit like Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly dropped in for a visit.

While Wheelhouse’s production of An Enemy of the People isn’t perfect, it is relevant and timely without being dictatorial. Though Wheelhouse is donating 100% of the ticket sales to the ACLU of Flint, Michigan, they resist the urge to make a direct reference to Flint, allowing the audience to draw their own parallels. This production is worth making time to see.

Runs until 24 June 2017

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The American team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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