THEATER REVIEW

Tom Isbell’s Adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Sizzles.

“We’re getting used to things we have no business getting used to.” — Dr. Thomas Stockmann

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Timing is often everything, and I must say that I could not have been better prepared to enjoy Saturday evening’s UMD Theater presentation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. I watched a film version a year ago, read the play itself afterwards, and saw a Hollywood version of the play this past spring (Steve McQueen’s last film).

To say these experiences were stimulating is an understatement. They prepared me perfectly for Tom Isbell’s updated version, which remains incisive and captures the story’s heart. It’s crisp, relevant and a lively adaptation that is fun while remaining exceedingly serious.

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Henrik Ibsen, an massively influential playwright of the later19th century, explored major themes that challenged conventions. A Doll’s House addressed the role of women. Ghosts addressed incest and venereal disease. An Enemy of the People, completed in 1882, featured a man at odds with his community and the ethical compromises that result in a systemic suppression of the truth. It also underscores one of the fundamental weaknesses of Democracy.

The central character is Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Addison Sim), who with his wife Katherine (Jenessa Iverson) and daughter Petra (Rachel Williams) discover themselves to be at odds with their town for attempting to speak truth to power. The 85-minute play details this in an entertaining series of revelations, confrontations and maneuvers that never drags as it drags the audience into facing hard truths about our own times.

This last — helping us see our contemporary culture through a focused lens — was noted obliquely up front and with explicit directness at the end.

A Word About The Theater
The Marshall Performing Arts Theater has an intimate smaller space that was set up in a Theater in the Round format with two and three rows of seats set against all four walls. A table with four chairs had been set off-center in the open square that served as stage, the chairs parked upside down on the table, legs skyward.

The director used a clever device to set up and dismantle each of the scenes. Lights would be lowered and a rhythmic soundtrack would play as the stagehands and sometimes players marched in a circle, grabbing and placing chairs, relocating the table, removing a prop occasionally. It was an effective device that also foreshadowed the play’s very last exclamation point.

The Setting
The original play is located in a Scandinavian town that has become increasingly famous for its healing waters. People come from far and wide to enjoy the beneficial effects of the waters here.

Even without seeing this modernized version of the play I couldn’t help but think of the Twin Ports and the natural beauty here, the lakes and rivers that are so loved, especially our Great Lake that seems to nourish souls in a magical way. What I mean is, I could picture Ibsen’s setting being a town like Duluth that benefits from tourism.

As the play opens, Dr. Stockmann, a scientist employed by the spa, is waiting for results from a study he has conducted. He wanted to confirm, via an outside source, a hunch he’s had about the waters. As it turns out, the results come and the proof is irrefutable. The waters are toxic.

Dr. Stockmann is sharing this information with the local press because he loves his community and cares about their welfare. “The community has to come first.”

Mary Hovstad, the publisher and her ace reporter Alan Billing seem eager to get the word out. It’s an important story, and Dr. Stockmann will be a hero.

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The good man is not interested in fame, however. He’s simply concerned about the health of the people who are using these lead-contaminated and disease-infected waters.

Petra, his daughter, lifts a glass and declares, “A toast to my father. A true friend of the people.”

In the next scene, Dr. Stockmann presents the facts to his brother the mayor (Patrick Timmons) and the head of the Small Business Association Robin Aslaksen (Eukariah Tabaka). “I don’t believe it,” the mayor says.

The timing couldn’t be worse as far as the mayor is concerned. The tourist season is just about to ramp up.

The exchanges here become quite comic, because the mayor refuses to read the report. Though he’s already against it, he firmly states, “I’m not convinced.” As if he had interest in the facts.

“But you didn’t read it!” Dr. Stockmann exclaims.

The mayor and Aslaksen, representatives of the political and business interests interests, denounce the report not on the merits of its validity, but because they believe it will “bankrupt the city.” Fixing the problem will be expensive. A better solution would be to ignore it for now and let the next generation fix it. (The Founding Fathers took this approach to the problem of slavery, and I trust you are connecting the dots as it applies to our own contemporary crises.)

You can probably guess that the newspaper publisher soon has her arm twisted to get in alignment with the powers that be. If the town goes belly up, she’s persuaded, the newspaper will have to fold. The whistleblower, no longer a hero, is now accused of treason.

Many Great Lines
This adaptation of the play might be faster paced than the original Ibsen play. The number of characters has been reduced. There were a number of great monologues by Dr. Stockmann in the original script which did not fit this streamlined re-telling of the story. You can read a few of my favorites in my earlier review of the film and original play Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Questions the Validity of Democracy .

Nevertheless, Tom Isbell’s adaptation is both effective and entertaining, with comic lines that carry sharp barbs like this one in response to the equivocating media: “You might want to try growing a spine.” And “What’s the point of speaking truth to power if no one wants to hear the truth?”

Near the end, this line of Dr. Stockmann’s stood out: “The strongest person in the world is the one who stands most alone.” Though Ibsen gave this to Dr. Stockmann, it echoes similar sentiments that appear throughout Nietzsche’s writings.

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Since Dr. Stockmann is refusing to “cooperate” with the authorities, he’s not only told that he’s been released from his responsibilities at the spa, but that he is going to lose his pension, too. It’s the whistleblower’s dilemma. Bite the hand that feeds you and you’re soon out on the street.

The consequences of choosing conscience over convenience impacts the whole family. The daughter is kicked out of school. His wife loses her job. But the family stands together. At the very end, the marching circle motif closes out the play, but with the Stockmann family marching in a smaller circle within the circle, in the opposite direction.

The play ends with individual side players stepping out to declare facts regarding events from recent history, specifically the water crisis and similar covered up disasters in Flint, Michigan, Newark, NJ and elsewhere, showing how 130 years have passed yet Ibsen remains completely relevant.

If the play turns up in your town, I strongly encourage you to find a way to see it. Tom Isbell, who wrote this adaptation, is a Hollywood veteran who has returned to his home state after a ten-year stint on the West Coast. A Professor of Theater at UMD, Isbell appeared in 30 films, including True Lies, The Abyss and Clear and Present Danger.

Related Links

The original script of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People
Tom Isbell at Imdb.com
Tom Isbell’s UMD bio and credits
Something’s in the Water by Michael Savage
I’m throwing this in here because it came to mind while I was watching the play and again while writing about it. Mike’s first novel dealt with an event that took place in the late 50s and 60s. The U.S. Government and Honeywell Corporation allegedly dumped 1467 barrels of toxic waste into Lake Superior.

POSTSCRIPT

I came across the following Ibsen quote after writing this review of the play. It was especially amusing in light of the story and several lines. “It is inexcusable for scientists to torture animals; let them make their experiments on journalists and politicians.” Ah, Mr. Ibsen. There are no doubt some who quite agree with you.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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