So, the creative team at Yale Repertory Theatre is weighing whether to board a play in which you have a man, an upright soul, who discovers deception and duplicity in a civic project that will line the pockets of those in power and fill the tills of local businesses but possibly cause illness and suffering. He’s determined to be a whistle-blower but the forces of cupidity and ignorance conjoin and he is labeled an enemy of the status quo and all but hounded out of town. Should Yale Rep stage the play? It’s a no-brainer, for the material, as evidenced by the response of the opening night audience to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is tailor-made for those uncomfortable with the current political situation in the United States.
Give credit to director James Bundy, the Rep’s artistic director, for not allowing the staging of the play to become a mere polemic. What’s currently on stage at Yale’s University Theatre is a nicely nuanced study of the price one pays for going against the tide, defying the crowd, trying to maintain the moral high ground and realizing, perhaps too late, that it is often a slippery slope.
Much of the credit for the success of this production has to go to Reg Rogers, who portrays Dr. Thomas Stockman, the erstwhile whistle-blower. There’s a temptation when taking on this role to play it for all of the “holier-than-thou” the actor can get out of it, but Rogers gives us a hero with, if not feet of clay at least a bit of dust on his shoes. His take on the character is sophomoric, and by that I mean he plays Stockman as a wise fool, committed to seeing justice done but somewhat blind to the inevitable consequences. Thus, Stockman is a flesh-and-blood character, a principled man with flaws. It’s a thoroughly engaging performance, no more so than when, near the end of the second act, he confronts Hovstad (Bobby Roman), the editor of a local newspaper, and conveys via laughter the weakness of those who trim their sails based on the direction the wind of public sentiment is blowing.
Impressive performances abound in this production. Joey Parsons, as the doctor’s wife, Catherine, skillfully let’s the audience see the price Stockman’s family will pay for his rectitude, and in a lovely moment of mime conveys her frustration with her husband for choosing to tilt at windmills. Equally engaging is Enrico Colantoni as the doctor’s brother, Peter, who is also the mayor of the small Norwegian town where the action is set. Venal and manipulative, Colantoni’s character is a wonderful foil to his brother’s perhaps slightly misguided nobility. And then there’s Jarlath Conroy as Morton Kill, Catherine’s adoptive father, who proves that there’s no such thing as a small role.
A note about the staging. There seems to be a conscious effort to emphasize that, well, “Hey, folks, we’re putting on a play.” The actors appear on stage before the opening curtain and mingle with the audience, and Emona Stoykova’s impressive set design leaves the wings entirely open so the audience can see the actors waiting to make their entrances and the stage hands doing their thing. I’m not exactly sure what the creative team’s motivation or intent was or how this toying with suspension of disbelief adds to the play – in fact, the open wings are often a bit distracting, pulling attention away from what is happening on stage. Then again, it’s Yale Rep, so you often have to expect the unexpected and off-beat, along with the head-scratching.
Distractions aside, this production of Ibsen’s take on bureaucracy, greed and thwarted idealism moves swiftly through it’s two acts. It obviously speaks to the Rep’s primary audience (there was applause when some lines were delivered) but doesn’t pander to liberal sensibilities. Yes, Dr. Stockman is fighting the good fight, but he does so with blinders on, and though there’s a heartwarming gathering of the Stockman family at the final curtain you get the feeling that there will be additional prices to be paid for defying the status quo.
An Enemy of the People runs through October 28. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org