Whoever thought Henrik Ibsen could be this funny? Laughing all the way to the gallows, Yale Rep’s antic production of the usually dour Norwegian’s “An Enemy of the People” (translated by Paul Walsh) reinforces the author’s dubbing his work a “comedy (with) a serious basic theme.” Its attitude towards political shenanigans, toward “a cesspool of lies,” cover-ups and indifference to people’s health marks it as much about 2017 as it is about 1882, when it was written.
When Dr. Thomas Stockmann discovers that the mineral baths in his home town are filled with pollutants, he does the honorable thing by reporting it. Surely new pipes could purify the town’s main source of income. Wanting to fix the baths is akin, metaphorically, to wanting to fix the town’s power structure and root out its “worship of authority.”
This does not sit well with the town’s mayor or most of its citizens. So what if a few people sicken? They surely must have affordable care. (Oh, wait, that really isn’t in the play – mustn‘t get carried away).
Stockmann has a family: a supportive though worried wife, an idealistic daughter and two young sons. Should the self-confident doctor sacrifice their security for his scientific beliefs? Is his blowing the whistle akin to leaking secrets, opening wounds for the sake of honesty?
Actually, Stockmann starts off a vigorous yet serious man, optimistic in the belief that his discovery will help the town and he be praised as its savior. Later, pushed to the edge of sanity, he becomes more defiantly eccentric, realizing that the hostility of the “solid majority” gives him strength to defy the mob. Alone he must stand, a brave and free individual.
In an inspired casting coup, Reg Rogers’ Stockmann is of a piece with the loping movements and flamboyant line readings of prior performances of his that would seem antithetical to that of an upright doctor. Seizing his opportunity, he shades Stockmann with both sense and sensibility, a man of towering rage and playful vengefulness.
Director James Bundy’s approach is notable for both emphasizing the comic aspects and overseeing the evening’s swift pace. His choices bring out Ibsen’s jaundiced views of capitalism, majority rule, the media, immorality and those who elevate personalities over issues. Bundy’s Brechtian staging – actors wander through the audience before the show starts, sit in the wings during scenes, dance and sing – lets the audience fully engage with the characters as if they were actual people.
Joey Parsons is a non-shrewish, concerned Catherine, Thomas’ wife, with Enrico Colantoni wonderfully pompous as the town’s mayor. Stephanie Machado finds levels of loyalty and pluck in daughter Petra, while Setareki Wainiqolo is outstanding as the sympathetic Captain Horster, subtly hinting of his blossoming relationship with Petra.
Emona Stoykova’s versatile set, Krista Smith’s lighting and Sophia Choi’s costumes also help assure the audience that the play is, finally, as much about then as now, about us as well as the characters. Add Matthew Suttor’s music and David Dorfman’s between-scenes choreography and you have a stirring production whose very title, though it evokes current threats against the media, here becomes an ironic salute to those who triumph over slick labels and incipient demagoguery.