Henrik Ibsen’s vigorous and extremely engaging 1882 drama An Enemy of the People, which depicts how an entire community is manipulated into lashing out against a lone critical voice like a rampaging mob, has been long overdue for a major revival, and seems especially relevant in an election season marked by extreme views across the political spectrum.
But it came as a surprise when Manhattan Theatre Company, which specializes in new productions and revivals of contemporary American works, announced that it would stage the classic play in a production directed by Doug Hughes, who is best known for directing the slam-dunk potboiler Doubt.
The play focuses on Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines), a much admired local physician who learns that his Norwegian town’s newly built baths, which are expected to attract tourists and outside money, have been polluted by nearby toxins and are causing sickness.
His brother Peter (Richard Thomas), the town’s mayor, bluntly tells the doctor that shutting down the baths would bankrupt the town. Unable to stop Thomas from spilling the beans, Peter goes around town badmouthing his brother. Thomas, who originally thought he’d be heralded as a savior for his discovery, perhaps even given a parade in his honor, is instead booed, harassed and fired from his job.
While Hughes’ production preserves the play’s qualities as a sharp thriller, the text has been severely trimmed to a lean two-hour length at the expense of some character development. The set design, which exposes the insides of the wooden buildings, is somewhat odd and distracting.
Many cast members, including Gaines and Thomas, have a tendency to scream their lines at maximum intensity. A scene before the act one curtain is essentially a shouting match between the two actors.
But these issues aside, An Enemy of the People makes for exciting, politically charged theater. The town hall sequence, which is staged environmentally around the theater, is particularly effective.
Gaines, one of our best stage actors, makes a credible transition into a determined dissident, while Thomas is a perfectly smug and dapper villain.