An Enemy of the People – Review by Tara Kennedy

An Enemy of the People at Yale Repertory Theatre

“What good is it to be right when you have no power?” –Catherine Stockmann

When coming to see a play written in 1882, one would not expect to find so many parallels to present day – and uncomfortably so. Paul Walsh’s translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People nicely acknowledges today’s political arena; one would have to been hiding under a civic rock to not see a correlation between these two settings. And I believe it is Mr. Walsh’s accessible translation along with James Bundy’s overall excellent vision that makes this play not-to-be-missed theatre.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers) is enjoying his newfound station as medical officer for the new Municipal Baths in a small Norwegian town, with his wife Catherine (Joey Parsons) and their three children, Petra (Stephanie Machado), Eilif (Atticus Burrello), and Morten (James Jisoo Maroney). He happily entertains the young, freethinking men of the town, like the editor of the “People’s Standard” newspaper, Hoystad (Bobby Roman), and his colleague, Billing (Ben Anderson). They are the “young, free-spirited people who are responsible for the common good,” Thomas proclaims. But bad news comes: there’s poison in the (literal) well; labs tests have determined that the water for the baths are filled with microorganisms, and so Thomas knows he must tell his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), immediately so that they can rebuild the pipes to ensure clean water for the baths. Thomas has the endorsement of Hoystad and the newspaper’s printer, Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), so he feels certain that he will be championed by the people of the town, even if his father-in-law, Morten Kiil (Jarlath Conroy) thinks it’s all “monkey business.”

However, Peter doesn’t share Thomas’ concern. He wants Thomas’ report to stay under wraps because of how expensive it would be to remedy the problem, leading to the town’s financial ruin; he calls Thomas’ lab analysis report, “strong rhetoric,” “opinion,” and “conjecture,” which dumbfounds Thomas. “This is science!” he declares, and the good doctor is determined to make sure the truth is known for the town’s well-being. But people don’t always vote with their own self-interest in mind; Peter manages to turn the town against the doctor and his family by stopping the newspaper from printing the doctor’s report, and instead assuring the town that all is well and there’s nothing wrong with the water. Thomas calls together a town hall meeting to try and convince the townspeople that his information is the truth; instead, he is voted down, declared an enemy of the people, and ostracized from the town. Ultimately, Thomas realizes that it is often the most tenacious that stands alone, but does take solace in being principled. And luckily, he is not completely alone: his immediate family stands with him.

Mr. Rogers’ performance as Dr. Stockmann is a sensation. It is a masterful achievement in fortitude and levity, and not to be missed. Mr. Colantoni is equally adept as the Mayor Stockmann, who volleyed well with Mr. Rogers, as they exhibited their characters as perfect contradictions of one another: effusive versus stoic; warm versus cool; and future versus past. Ms. Parsons is excellent as Catherine as skillful counsel to and supporter of her husband. Ms. Machado is the perfect, passionate Petra who I wish had a larger role in this story. I also enjoyed Mr. Henderson’s always-cautious Aslaksen; he played the printer with measured temperance and political acumen, always reminding his fellow citizens to tread with moderation. Mr. Roman seemed a bit subdued and spurious as Hoystad. I sensed that he was not comfortable with the role, and it was most evident when he professes his love to Petra.

Scenic design by Emona Stoykova is simple and impressive: the entire set is a large cube that rotates to exhibit different locations. There is no masking on stage, so the wings are visible, which is an interesting choice. I was glad that the movement of actors and crew in the wings did not detract from the action on stage. The lively dancing and other movement, choreographed by David Dorfman, added interest to scene changes; I am always curious to see how director choose to disguise scene changes, and this was a nice solution. Sophia Choi’s simple, elegant costumes round out the restrained design.

I imagine the battle between fact and “alternative fact” sounds a little too familiar to us audience members. There are those of us who cannot believe that there are people in today’s society who still think that global warming is a communist plot and the moon landing was faked on a movie lot. With Ibsen’s work, we see that money and power appears to triumph over good and just, but the play does demonstrate that surrendering is not the answer; it just means that fighting for truth and justice might be a lonely fight. But with the doctor’s family and closest friends at his side, who knows? If there were to be a sequel, perhaps the good doctor would eventually come out victorious. At least Ibsen provides some hope for those of us who feel that they are on the honorable side of history.