- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

Nobody likes a tattletale, especially when the blabbermouth in question threatens the cozy prosperity of a Norwegian town known for its healthful spa. The fact that Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Joseph Urla) is morally and scientifically right in his discovery that the public baths are toxic is immaterial — the town’s pooh-bahs and great unwashed don’t want to be inconvenienced or pay up to have the situation rectified. They want the status quo — even if it kills them and the tourists.

Hastily written in 1882 in reaction to the censorship and public outcry that greeted his play “Ghosts,” Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” is more a staged political pamphlet than a full-blooded drama. Still, there is much to admire in Ibsen’s single-minded outrage and in the purity of the Shakespeare Theatre’s careful production, directed by Kjetil Bang-Hansen. Designer Timian Alsaker shows that austerity can be beautiful, with a 1930s set that looks as gleamingly spartan as a diet doctor’s health regimen.

Olney Theatre presented “Enemy” during the summer (2006 is the centennial of Ibsen’s death), and its production captured the fierce polemical energy of Ibsen’s play. The Shakespeare Theatre has a different translation by Rick Davis and Brian Johnston that is more honed and cruelly funny than the one used by Olney. A hefty portion of the speechifying has been edited — notably in the second act’s town hall meeting, which was like being forced to watch C-Span for 48 hours straight.

The problematic handling of the female characters, Stockmann’s wife (Caitlin O’Connell) and principled daughter Petra (Samantha Soule), has been resolved, with the two women being supportive of Stockmann without becoming spineless simps. Also excised is the eye-rolling optimism of the ending, in which the doctor and his family are like a high-minded version of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland — only instead of putting on a show, they use their grit and an old house to start a school for freethinkers.

“Enemy” begins in exultation, when Stockmann receives lab tests confirming the toxicity of the baths and is sure his findings will make him the town hero. Mr. Urla’s wonderfully obstinate portrayal shows Stockmann crowing like Peter Pan over his discovery. What he doesn’t take into account is the reaction of his savvy brother and rival, Peter, the mayor who views the poisoned water as a fiscal disaster that neither the taxpayers nor the town’s elders should shoulder. Without breaking a sweat, Peter (played by Philip Goodwin in pinstriped suit and luxurious white mustache as a sleeker version of the Monopoly game millionaire) destroys his brother, rallying the town’s politicos and proletariat into branding the doctor a dangerous turncoat.

Among Stockmann’s fair-weather friends are Aslaksen, a moderate community leader played with deliciously immoderate shiftiness by Rick Foucheux, and newspaperman Billing (Tyron Mitchell Henderson), whose sunny demeanor belies a daggered heart.

By the time of the second act’s town hall, a showdown that disintegrates into a farce, “Enemy” has become less about exposing public health hazards and more about backroom politics and power brokers. Even Dr. Stockmann is not talking much about the water, instead attacking the ignorance of the mob.

All of the changes and streamlining seems to point to the last line of the play, when the financially and professionally compromised Dr. Stockmann proclaims that “the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.” An almost laughable contrariness clings to his words as Stockmann moodily dramatizes his plight.

Although Stockmann has been ostracized from his hometown, much of the fallout was caused by his own hammering idealism. In society, it seems, it is not enough to be right. You have to be politic as well.

Mr. Bang-Hansen views the ending of the play as almost Chekhovian in its elegant irony. For all the fiery accusations and finger-pointing, nothing much has changed. The town’s water supply is still poisoned (any changes will be cosmetic at best), the powers that be still hold the reins, and the working class is as malleable as ever.

Stockmann, however, has joined his attackers in truly becoming an enemy of the people.

***

WHAT: “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 22.

TICKETS: $19 to $76.25

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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