An Enemy of the People -Vibrant

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. (British proverb)

When an 1882 play arrives timely, issues of profit above morality might just as well be neon. Name an advancement that hasn’t been slowed or prevented by business or government because short term cost outweighs long term benefit; a state of inadequate care or poor construction that could be ameliorated by changing priorities. Accumulation of wealth is repeatedly put above human welfare. Disinformation promotes clandestine strategies.

Companies can pay to offset carbon footprints thus avoiding costly restructuring which would help climate change. That CEOs fly in private planes is not factored in. When a law passes stipulating infrastructure adjustments, its deadline is years away ostensibly allowing industry to retrofit, but in reality, putting off solutions. Ignored water pollution in An Enemy of the People reveals just how far society sinks – its brain gullible, its eye on profit.

April 2014, with Flint, Michigan in economic decline, Governor Rick Snyder appointed unelected emergency managers who reported directly to the Michigan state treasury department. These men switched the city’s water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the Flint River as a cost-savings measure. Tens of thousands of citizens were exposed to dangerous levels of lead. People began to get sick. Outbreaks of Legionnaire disease killed at least 12 people and sickened more.

Isolated incidents proving contamination were glossed over. Whistleblowers were quashed. By December 2015, a state of emergency was declared. Primary responsibility for the crisis was placed on the state. Criminal charges were brought against two MDEQ employees and the Flint city utilities administrator. It was two years before water was safe to drink.

Katie Broad (the maid) David Patrick Kelly (here, musician) and Victoria Pedretti (Petra)

The Play: Widower Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Jeremy Strong) has moved back home to a small Norwegian town with his daughter Petra (Victoria Pedretti) and grandson. (Playwright Amy Herzog has eliminated the doctor’s wife. We don’t feel her absence.) Considered a healthful area in which to live, the town is investing considerable resources developing a spa with municipal baths. Thomas has been offered the job of medical chief by his pompous brother Peter (Michael Imperioli), the mayor. Life is good. Petra is a teacher, Thomas has salary enough to enjoy small luxuries.

Sensing something amiss, Thomas secretly has water tested by the university. There’s a possibility that tanneries above the baths are polluting. Much to his chagrin, what is billed as medicinal turns out to be contaminated. Keep in mind, this is 1882 and the scence of bacteriology was not well known. Father-in-law Morten Kiil (David Patrick Kelly), owner of the largest tannery, dubiously persists in referring to bacteria as animals in the pipes.

Victoria Pedretti (Petra) Caleb Eberhardt (Hovstad) and Jeremy Strong (Dr. Thomas Stockmann)

The doctor reveals test results to a small group of those he considers trusted friends. Printer and union head Aslaksen (Thomas Jay Ryan) – “We’re behind you like a wall” – newspaper publisher and Petra’s suitor, Hovstad (Caleb Eberhardt), and reporter, Billing (Matthew August Jeffers), praise him as a servant of the people. “Thank goodness you found out in time,” Petra exclaims apparently speaking for them all. Thomas arranges to share his findings in the newspaper naïvely assuming “they’ll fix it.”

Enter silver-tongued Peter, eye directed at the spa like a heat seeking missile. It would, he says, take two years and three or four hundred thousand crowns to repair the water system. Neighboring towns would acquire tourists, businesses depending on the income would suffer or close. “Eventually the board might take up some of your suggestions,” the mayor tells his brother in an attempt to pacify him. “Have the consequences to you and your family occurred to you?” he persists having not swayed Thomas.

Caleb Eberhardt ( Hovstad) and Victoria Pedretti (Petra)

The doctor is palpably shocked when adamant supporters drop away, each man thinking of his own pocket. Economics are not, of course, the only issue used to convince. Thomas’ credentials are suddenly in question. He’s declared over cautious; science invalid. Then things get worse.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious-disease specialist, was pilloried through much of COVID.  “We cannot allow our communities to become Faucian dystopias in which people’s freedoms are curtailed and their livelihoods destroyed,” the DeSantis campaign wrote. Trump called Dr. Fauci a “self-promoter trying to reinvent history to cover for bad instincts and faulty recommendations.” Fauci was vilified, his family threatened.

Victoria Pedretti Petra) and Jeremy Strong (Dr. Stockmann)

This never occurs to Thomas who seems more puzzled by his town’s revilement than the character in Ibsen’s play. Integrity is his mantra. Of course vilification comes, as does violence – here vividly original. When the entire community turns on him, he mourns for the state of mankind as much as his own diminished outlook.

Playwright Amy Herzog channels Ibsen with respect, while intermittently disagreeing with his work. She surreptitiously cuts away the nonessential and didactic, adds nuanced indications of relatable human failing, and peppers the unsettling drama with considerable humor. Without using contemporary idioms, Herzog makes the language, in fact, the piece seem current and prophetic.

Michael Imperioli (Peter Stockmann)

Jeremy Strong’s Dr. Stockmann is thoughtful,  idealistic and certain of himself. That we believe his deep seated morality without perceiving him a stuffed shirt is a credit to the actor who neither goes over the top nor makes light of the character’s convictions. Strong (who most of us know from TV’s Succession) is at ease on stage and immersed in the moment. Playfulness is as credible as fury.

David Patrick Kelly’s Morten Kiil is palpably comfortable with his own despicable behavior. (The actor also has a fine singing voice.) As Aslaksen, Thomas Jay Ryan’s turnabout is oiled with self interest, justification comes easy as his chest swells with unexpected power. Were this Shakespeare, he might represent a jester. Subtle reactions are a pleasure to observe.

Michael Imperioli’s Peter Stockmann is too bland and even to capture the written character. As the independent Petra, Victoria Pedretti lacks spirit. Since she represents not only reason, but the only glimmer of hope for a better future, this is doubly missed.

Director Sam Gold uses the idiosyncratic space so fluidly he doesn’t appear challenged by it. Stage business involving the mayor’s hat and a scene in which Thomas almost dances on desks capture Herzog’s wry intention. In fact, Gold braids the playwright’s humor so seamlessly into Ibsen’s drama, both aspects emerge intact. Use of song is atmospheric. Pacing is skilled. The pivotal speech scene and its aftermath are inspired.

Clever scenic design by dots creates a long, narrow, economically furnished room seemingly illuminated by gaslight. (Isabella Byrd-Lighting) An unexpected trap door offers variety of exit. Thomas’s bully puppet for the pivotal speech crosses from contemporary to nineteenth century arriving completely original.

David Zinn’s costumes are just right. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman captures not only dialogue but Norwegian song.

If you’re down front, you might be able to secure a (free) drink during a brief pause (not intermission).

Photos by Emilio Madrid
Opening: Jeremy Strong (Dr. Stockmann)

An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen
A New Version by Amy Herzog
Directed by Sam Gold

Circle in the Square 
235 West 50th Street

About Alix Cohen (1726 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.