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October 10, 2016
Review: Public Enemy
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

Contaminated water endangers a community. Science denial is widespread in the face of inconvenient truths. The discomfiting idea that populism can be a dangerous thing hangs in the atmosphere.

There is plenty in David Harrower’s 2013 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play Public Enemy (more commonly known in English as An Enemy of the People) to make audiences think of the jagged political landscape of 2016 America. Staged in this fractious election season—by Hal Brooks, for the Pearl Theatre Company—the play is sure to agitate us. Perhaps it will make us look for the prejudices and muddy thinking behind our own convictions. But it will console or inspire few of us. (True, George Bernard Shaw cited the “grim fun” in Ibsen’s play, but it’s hard to find delight when the grimness hits so close to home.)

Dr. Thomas Stockman (Jimonn Cole) is the medical officer for the public baths in a Scandinavian town that depends on the rejuvenating waters for its economic stability. He has secretly been testing his hypothesis that those waters have become polluted by the town’s tanneries, including one owned by his own father-in-law, Kiil (Dominic Cuskern). Stockman shares his discoveries with Hovstad (Robbie Tann), the editor of the local radical newspaper. But when the doctor’s brother, Mayor Peter Stockman (Guiesseppe Jones), learns the news, the tables turn. Hovstad and others in Stockman’s circle quickly abandon him. The man who believed he was the town’s savior becomes a pariah—seen as a Public Enemy, set on destroying the local economy. Aside from his wife (Nilaja Sun), his children (Arielle Goldman, Alex Haynes, David Vino), and a sympathetic ship’s-captain (Carol Schultz), Stockman stands alone.

Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

A lesser playwright than Ibsen might have made Dr. Stockman a noble, misunderstood crusader, crushed by the ignorance and greed of the mob. To a degree, the doctor is that kind of man. But he is also a flawed hero. He at first flatters himself in thinking that the townspeople might want to fete him for his discovery, perhaps even reward him monetarily. Had he more carefully considered the likely repercussions of his findings, would he not have been able to predict his neighbors’ negative reactions? Stockman rails against his fellow citizens when they reject his discoveries and, in a town-meeting scene, his passively aggressive tendencies turn active. He has a meltdown, culminating in his pronouncement that the entire citizenry should be “exterminated like vermin.”

Harrower has fashioned a taut 90-minute intermission-less version of Ibsen’s five-act Norwegian original. But if he has eliminated some words, he hasn’t minced the ones remaining. At one point in his version of Stockman’s rant, he has the doctor compare majority rule to “gang rape.” Harrower’s take on the protagonist’s tirade stresses the specific failures of a 21st-century populace, who spend their lives fixated on “the waist-line of [their] favorite film star” instead of serious issues.

As Stockman, Cole is unassuming and unremarkable in the first part of the play, but he becomes much more interesting starting with the town-meeting sequence. By and large, though, the acting in this production is disappointing—lackluster and a bit stilted. Brooks has attempted to add some excitement to key scenes by adding ominous music cues and/or bathing the stage in red light. But it’s the unnerving complexity of Ibsen’s and Harrower’s writing that dominates the proceedings and makes the show worth seeing, not the performances or the stage trappings.


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Written by: Mark Dundas Wood
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