Speaking “truth to power” is always a risky proposition and no play defines the perils of altruism more certainly than Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Written after the negative critical response to Ibsen’s Ghosts, Ibsen’s play derides society’s morality and dependence on economic prosperity at all costs. Wheelhouse Theatre Company’s excellent take on Ibsen’s play continues the talented company’s reputation for their willingness to grapple with bold themes to create a vibrant work of art.
Smart, taut direction of a classic play is crucial when working with a young company and thanks to the director, Jeff Wise, we are not disappointed. Wise’s work (he is aptly named) is strategic and wry, allowing us to enjoy the text, wherein this talented company’s artistry is fostered. The cast works seamlessly together finding the pith and core of this great play. Is there anything more compelling than a talented group of artists working moment to moment to reveal the inner themes of a great Ibsen play? I think not.
Excellent staging in this production (again, by Mr. Wise) is well supported by the scenic designer (kudos to Brittany Vasta) who utilizes a minimalist multi-leveled stage which allows the company endless variety in the storytelling. Actors remain onstage, quietly providing nuanced cross-referencing for the offstage action. Members of the company also take comic turns (Yes! There’s comedy here!) as a coat rack or two, and crumpled balls of paper (the worthless ruins of the local press) become ineffectual and listless rocks thrown through Stockman’s windows near the end of the play. Nothing is wasted here, props and sets are deliberately minimalist and the payoff is huge.
As the play opens, Dr. Thomas Stockman has made a “great discovery” (played by the wonderful Michael Schantz, who sets the tone for the evening with his relaxed, vibrant characterization of Ibsen’s somewhat autobiographical central figure). Namely, that the local baths which the community depends upon for income is heavily poisoned by the local tannery. Enlisting the aid of the local press and trade members, Dr. Stockman’s aim is to reveal this truth so that the local government authorities will pay for major repairs which need to be made for the safety of the health of the visitors. At first, he is aided by Hovstad (the splendid Ben Graney) and Aslaksan (played with stately gravitas by Joshua David Robinson) who seem to understand the necessity of joining Dr. Stockman and speaking out for the public’s safety.
Aided by his wife, Katherine Stockman (a lovely, nuanced performance by Stacy Linnartz) and his daughter Petra Stockman (played by the dignified yet sprightly Christina Toth) the family suffers betrayal after betrayal. The cruelest cut comes from of Dr. Stockman’s brother, the Mayor of the town (played with vibrant rage by David Kenner) at the possible loss of economic stability to which the town has grown accustomed. The Mayor demands loyalty from his brother and all who live within the town’s borders.
Sound familiar? A demand for loyalty? With the current state of affairs, whatever your political leanings, this prescient work by Wheelhouse Theatre Company continues to resonate with its audience for days after the performance. A thoughtful and timely piece, well acted, well directed and at 90 minutes, an evening well spent in the off-off Broadway venue at The Gene Frankel Theatre.