Who knew Henrik Ibsen had a sense of humor? The famously dour Norwegian playwright of such serious classics as “Ghosts”, “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler”, is in a rather jovial mood with the Yale Repertory Theatre’s season-opening production of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People”. This fascinating revival is very much in tune with the New Haven theatre’s mandate to select bold choices for adventurous audiences.
The play is set in 1882 Norway where Dr. Thomas Stockman (Reg Rogers, a revelation) is the medical officer of the town’s new Municipal Baths. He soon discovers the water in the baths has been contaminated resulting in a rise of various illnesses among the citizens. Convinced that the townspeople will hail him a savior for finding this danger before it got much worse, the good doctor lets his brother, the town’s Mayor, know the news first. The Mayor, however, feels the repair costs would be prohibitive to taxpayers and that the baths would have to be closed for two years. He is also not really convinced that the science is accurate and may be all much ado about nothing.
“Enemy of the People” is an all-too-timely look at the role of man against society, the “solid majority”, and the often baffling public distrust against men of science. Becoming a whistleblower makes Stockman an enemy of the people and his dogged fight for the truth and standing up for what he knows is right is the moral center of the drama. With only his loved ones and a few close friends by his side, Stockman remains stalwart, refusing to back down even when it involves his job, his reputation and the financial status of his family.
The production is beautifully paced and it is directed with urgency and purpose by James Bundy. As its central figure, Mr. Rogers gives a high-energy, very funny performance as the dedicated doctor. Most productions I’ve seen of the play are slow and very serious, like museum pieces with characters who serve only as mouthpieces for Ibsen’s rhetoric. Rogers’ risky take on the role will be controversial because it could be seen as jokey and distracting from the crucial issues at hand. But I applaud how he makes Stockman a real person, one with a sense of the ridiculous about the situation he suddenly finds himself in. He’s the smartest guy in the room and no one knows it.
In fine support are Joey Parsons as Stockman’s supportive wife and Stephanie Machado as his forward-thinking daughter, Petra. Enrico Colantoni makes a strong impression as Stockman’s devious brother even with some line problems evident at the performance I caught. I liked Setareki Wainiqulo’s unfussy demeanor as one of Stockman’s few loyal friends and Bobby Roman brings conviction to the role of Hovstad, the editor of the local newspaper who turns on Stockman after the Mayor gets his ear.
Technical credits at Yale are all first-rate as usual with Emona Stoykova’s open rotating set superb especially late in the play when Stockman’s home is under siege. I do question the use of modern metal folding chairs in the debate scene, however, and wonder if the designer is making a statement that flew right over my head. There is also memorable music composed by Matthew Suttor and elegant costuming provided by Sophia Choi. In all, this is a rewarding opening production for the Rep.
“Enemy of the People” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 28. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.