“Democracy is questionable if citizens do not know how to act rationally, morally, and environmentally.” — Dr. Yearn Hong Choi, from the playbill for “An Enemy of the People.”
As relevant today as it was when playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote it in 1882, UMD’s production of “An Enemy of the People” reverberates with issues ripped from the headlines: political corruption, moral bankruptcy, environmental crises, the role of the whistleblower and the need for a free press.
The star of the show is UMD professor Tom Isbell’s scintillating new adaptation, down from five acts to one taut 85-minute act, performed without an intermission. Some characters, scenes and plot elements are left out or altered, and the roles that the women play are now more integral, making the script laser-focused and as contemporary as the latest Tweet or evening news broadcast.
Filled with catch phrases and references to today’s political climate, the script still beats with the heart of Ibsen’s original themes. Isbell’s dynamic direction includes intricate movements in scenic designer Katie Cornish’s “boxing ring” set that gives space for different locales, eventually evolving into a “courtroom.”
Ibsen, the Shakespeare of Norway, tells the story of Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Addison Sim), a medical officer for the town’s major industry, a spa. Alarmed when he discovers that the spa’s water source has been contaminated by the tannery, Stockmann makes his explosive findings public.
His whistleblowing puts him in direct conflict with his brother, Peter Stockmann (Patrick Timmons), the town’s mayor and the spa’s board president. To fix the water issues would require closing the spa for two years, spending huge amounts of money, and disrupting the economy and the livelihoods of the town’s residents.
Sim and Timmons have some strong moments in their arguments about what happened originally to cause the problems, and, more significantly, what should or shouldn’t be done to fix them. While, at times the two actors could build to a bit more spark and passion, they represent well their opposite corners, one brother unwilling to accept an “inconvenient truth” and the other willing to go along with the status quo, with the health of the spa visitors be damned.
The evening’s strongest acting moments come from Rachel Williams as Petra Stockmann, the doctor’s daughter. Starting out as a funny, witty, sarcastic college student, Williams becomes the most impassioned advocate for her father. When she waves the fraudulent permit that knowingly allowed the location of the spa’s pipes in the first place, it becomes a banner, and her speech an anthem in the show’s climactic scene.
A crushing “afterword” includes a litany of the events surrounding Flint, Michigan’s water catastrophe and the dismantling of the EPA and regulations that will inevitably cause more disasters.
This production is a compelling cautionary tale of an impending ecological holocaust that requires the conscience, decency and activism of more than just Ibsen’s “strongest man … able to stand alone” but the collective voices and actions of governments, leaders and awakened populations around the globe.
If you go
What: “An Enemy of the People”
When: Nov. 7-9, 12-16 at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at 2 p.m.
Where: UMD Dudley Experimental Theatre
Tickets: 218-726-8877 or tickets.umn.edu. $25 adults; $20 seniors, UMD staff, veterans; $15 students and $10 UMD students.
Sheryl Jensen is a former teacher, magazine editor and director. She reviews theater for the News Tribune.