- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama “An Enemy of the People” was written in acid-fueled fire following critical and audience disdain for his play “Ghosts.” Olney Theatre’s production of the piece is appropriately white-hot. With a noisy and rabble-rousing staging, director Jim Petosa takes a feral, itching-for-a-fight approach to the play, a scathing rant against small-town groupthink and pea-brained poobahs.

Ibsen clearly sympathizes with the outsider — he lived away from his native Norway most of his life — and those who go against the tide in his portrait of an environmental whistleblower whose efforts to tell the truth fall on deaf ears.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Christopher Lane) is a physician and head of the town’s mineral spas, a source of rejuvenation for those who take the waters and also for the town itself. Tourism and much of the area’s positive growth depends on the spas, a fact endlessly touted by Thomas’ older brother Peter (James Slaughter), the unctuous mayor.

When Thomas discovers that the spas might be toxic, the town’s leaders try to minimize the findings. Initially, the liberal newspaper editor, Hovstad (Jeffries Thaiss), views Thomas’ discovery as a way to open a crusade against the powers that be, but Hovstad caves in to political pressure and the will of the people — who, the head of the homeowner association points out, would certainly want the baths cleaned up, but not if it means increased taxes.

The power of the press denied to him, Thomas takes it directly to the citizenry in a brawling, disruptive town meeting, stunningly staged by Mr. Petosa. The house lights go up, the actors run up and down the aisles and between the rows, and suddenly the audience becomes the obedient masses who watch mutely as the town leaders bring out their long knives and Thomas commits career suicide.

It’s a fight to the death, and the skirmishes seem closer to those between animals than rational human beings. In an excellent performance, Mr. Lane plays Thomas Stockmann as a sensitive, deeply questioning physician and family man — until he is fired up with self-righteousness, at which point he is transformed into something of a strutting, sputtering bantam rooster.

Playing the cool, image-savvy mayor, Mr. Slaughter is as imperious and self-possessed as a peacock. Mr. Thaiss flexes and unflexes his talons like a bird of prey in his vicious portrayal of an ethically-challenged newspaperman. Speaking of predators, Richard Pilcher chortles like a hyena as Thomas’ rich, crafty father-in-law.

“An Enemy of the People” can be tedious: Speechifying abounds, and many of the monologues are performed in the declamatory, grandstanding style of a filibuster. And Ibsen must have been dozing at his desk when coming up with the silly character of Thomas’ wife, who veers between being a dippy hausfrau and a suffragette. The women in general, including Thomas’ schoolteacher daughter, spend much of their time clutching the arms of the men and looking as stricken as a heroine in a melodrama.

Despite its shortcomings, “An Enemy of the People” is a taut, swiftly moving indictment of mob-thinking and tragic shortsightedness. Ibsen could easily be talking about 2006 in his stinging observation that people want change for the good, as long as they are not inconvenienced.

How fitting that the politically charged Potomac Theatre Project, in its final offering at Olney Theater before moving to New York next summer, goes out in a blaze of fire.

***

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

WHERE: Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md.

WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8:15 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and selected Thursdays. Through Aug. 27.

TICKETS: $34 to $44

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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