Watching Artistic Director Robert Falls’ production of Henrik Ibsen’s play AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE is an eerily prescient experience. Though Ibsen wrote ENEMY in 1882, much of the dialogue (adapted by Falls from a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling) feels like it is purely 2018 parlance. And, of course, the issue at the play’s heart (really, the only issue in the piece) is a bitter battle between Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who discovers the town’s water is poisonous, and his brother Mayor Peter Stockmann, who wishes to hide that truth at all costs. ENEMY’s script is undeniably pointed—among others, the phrase “fake facts” is used. Yet that seems to be precisely the argument that Falls is making: this is an on the nose production for an equally pointed moment in time.
While ENEMY initially appears to paint in broad, black and white strokes down the line of good and evil, what Ibsen—and what Falls’s superlative ensemble—reveal to us is that nothing is ever so clear cut. As the play unfolds, we see that Dr. Stockmann is not necessarily acting from a place of benevolence, but rather one of superiority. Philip Earl Johnson’s portrayal of the role underscores this nicely. Johnson acts with a ferociousness that easily sells us on Dr. Stockmann’s steadfast, determined ways. Once his Doctor picks his side of the issue, Johnson never lets up. This comes to a head particularly in an Act Two town hall scene, in which Dr. Stockmann addresses the crowd (which comprises nearly 50 actors, by the way, to great effect but with a touch of extravagance). I could practically see Johnson’s veins bursting from his forehead in that moment, so great was his passion and anger. Although Johnson seemed a bit shaky on the text in places when I saw the show, his emotional truth is entirely there. As Mayor Stockmann, Scott Jaeck is similarly ready for battle. Jaeck has an extraordinarily commanding presence on the stage, and he is relentless in that portrayal. Watching these two actors go head-to-head makes this ENEMY powerful to watch, and also underscores the shades of gray inherent in Ibsen’s text.
Of course, Dr. and Mayor Stockmann do not act alone in their battle. ENEMY is also timely because of the role that the press plays. As the newspaper editor Hovstad, Aubrey Deeker Hernandez nails both the earnestness and also the slyness of his character. With Jesse Bhamrah as Billing at Hernandez’s side, these two actors convincingly portray the darker side of the press—and the fact that even seemingly impartial journalists can be bought. As Dr. Stockmann’s wife Katherine, Lanise Antoine Shelley displays an elegance and a calmness that contrasts with the more heated, cynical moments in the play. The fact that Katherine is pregnant also reinforces just how much Dr. Stockmann is risking by taking a stand against his brother. Yet Shelley also shows us just how much Katherine is willing to support her husband’s side. As Dr. Stockmann’s daughter Petra, Rebecca Hurd makes a lovely debut at the Goodman. Hurd adds some refreshing optimism, though she shows us just how much Petra’s worldview changes as the play progresses.
The scenic elements for ENEMY highlight the cynical, embattled world of the play. Todd Rosenthal’s set has an opulence to it, but also a coldness befitting the issue at hand. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes use a delightful color scheme. Robert Wierzel’s lighting sets the tone for each moment in the play, as does Richard Woodbury’s sound design. Altogether these elements add further dimension to the battleground on which ENEMY takes place. They also serve to build tension.
Above all, Falls’s production brings out the timeliness of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. The incredible work of the actors also underscores that even on an issue that seems clear cut, the solution is never easy. Particularly through Johnson’s portrayal of Dr. Stockmann, this play also shows that even when we seem to act out of altruism, more selfish motivations and the need to feel superior may actually be the fire that insights us to action. Ibsen’s message is cynical, but it also feels inevitable.
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE plays at Goodman Theatre through April 15. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org for tickets and more information.
Photo by Liz Lauren