The cast of Goodman Theatre’s ‘An Enemy of the People.’ (Photo: Liz Lauren)
By Becky Sarwate
The work of certain playwrights within the generally accepted literary “canon” can be tough for a mid-21st Century theater critic to take. For example, Noel Coward immediately comes to mind. Some of his dialogue is absolutely bracing from the vantage point of the #MeToo era.
In Private Lives, for instance, there’s this notorious line: “Some women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” Yikes. Radical feminist, Coward was not. As a female pundit, it can be difficult to separate the artistic value of a production from its problematic source material. When it comes to gender issues, “It was a different era” sounds more and more like the feeble mitigation it is.
There are the Cowards, playwrights whose work looks and feels antiquated with the passage of time. Then there are those in the canon who read perennially fresh – the subject matter and discourse more relevant, timely and compelling as our culture evolves (or devolves). In this corner, we find 19th Century Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen.
Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls has chosen well in selecting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for a new adaptation, currently onstage in the Albert Theatre. One hundred and fifty years after its debut, the play’s themes feel ripped from today’s headlines. Press materials succinctly describe Ibsen’s complex masterpiece as follows, “When a water contamination crisis puts their community in peril, two brothers—Dr. Stockmann and Mayor Stockmann—face off in a battle of political ambitions and moral integrity.”
If this synopsis evokes visions of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or if it reminds one of the Flint water crisis, which is approaching its fourth lead-fueled anniversary, this is no accident. Falls’ staging of An Enemy of the People tweaks the timeless source material just enough to leave absolutely no doubt that we’re looking at today’s sociopolitical climate. Ibsen was ahead of his time but he didn’t coin the term “fake news.” Audiences will see terrific actors in comely period costumes rather than MAGA hats, but Falls and his production team won’t let us leave Trump’s America.
Leading a uniformly talented cast is Philip Earl Johnson in the role of Thomas Stockmann, a doctor and the chief medical officer of his town’s cash cow—a luxury spa resort. A man fully committed to science and the halcyon, objective truth offered by data, Stockmann becomes the titular Enemy by prioritizing public health above politics and profit. Over the course of the two-act production, Johnson gives us a Stockmann who nimbly transforms from naïve, academic family man into a fiery social justice warrior. It’s a barn burner of a performance.
Scott Jaeck, as Thomas’ lonely older brother Peter, is a villain who inspires equal portions of pity and acrimony among his family members, including Thomas’ grown daughter Petra (Rebecca Hurd) and wife Katherine (Lanise Antoine Shelley). Cloaking himself in a mantle of paternalistic public duty, the Mayor’s ill health and joyless existence are brandished like a club in the direction of competing interests, which very much include his younger’s brother commitment to sanitizing spa waters. Profit and power over poverty and impotence—by any means necessary. Jaeck’s performance is full of bombast and narcissism as a mask fear and ignorance. His turn is emotionally reminiscent of a certain President with orange hair and tiny hands.
Goodman Theatre’s press release in support of the production informs us that “Triggered by the criticism and controversy of his earlier plays… Ibsen authored An Enemy of the People as a partial response to his critics… determined to examine the underbellies of marriage, sex and middle-class society.” Channeling his anger through the character of Dr. Stockmann, the play’s most significant scene occurs in the second act. The disillusioned doc embarks on a long public harangue against misinformation, willful blindness and moral abdication. It is full of organic truth that yields ironic laughter and at least on opening night, one fist pump (courtesy of an unidentified critic).
We need Ibsen and his timeless work more than ever in 2018. And we need this production of An Enemy of the People. See it.
An Enemy of the People
170 N Dearborn, Chicago, IL
Through April 15
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018, her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.