The Norwegian Henrik Ibsen is considered a forefather of modern theater – specifically, “problem plays” that address moral, social or political issues – whose lineage reaches all the way to today’s modern plays, which have tackled homophobia, war and racism. When Ibsen put pen to paper, out came fiery tracts of argument and critique, especially against Victorian morality and norms – also the target in Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People.
It tells the story of Dr. Thomas Stockmann (director Nick Hovick), a doctor in an unnamed town who is the medical officer of the newly built recuperative baths. It’s been a major project of civic pride and economic promise, but the doctor receives lab results that show the waters are poisoned with bacteria. Thom, Ibsen’s personification of logic and liberalism, proposes repairing it, but that idea doesn’t sit well with his brother Peter (Peter Eberhardt), the mayor, who embodies Ibsen’s notion of petty civic power and greed – it would mar the town’s reputation for its healthful waters, cost too much, and delay everyone’s payoff. (“Other towns will divert the stream of invalids,” he says.)
The brothers square off in an ideological battle in which they each try to rally allies like the town’s newspaper editor, the head of the homeowners association, family and other citizenry. It’s a public battle, between truth and lie, freethinkers and propagandists, the stewardship of the public health and the prosperity of the elite. Ideally, the former should win out in a just society. But look around. Is that the society we live in? Kudos to Staff Players Repertory for picking a play that’s still relevant.
In Thom, Ibsen propounds his belief that freethinkers, using empirical knowledge, should steer the masses of society, and usurp establishment authorities. Not easy when opposition arises from all quarters. When Thom’s wife, Katherine, asks him to consider the financial consequences to their family if he loses his job, Thom calls it “financial slavery.”
Last year about this time, Staff Players put on Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, a problem play that’s also political in nature. But compared to the rousing Waiting for Lefty – which opened with characters in costume singing protest folk songs, and ended with shouts to strike – last Saturday’s production of An Enemy of the People seemed unfocused. Its opening was delayed one week, but the production still came off as premature, despite the fact that the performance was the fifth in its run.
Early on, local stage pro Eberhardt lost his way on his lines, but made a quick recovery and was polished for the duration. John Affinito as the printer Mr. Olafsen was vigorous and confident, as was Fred Herro as Morten Kiil, Thom’s father-in-law, and, mostly, veteran Hovick. In this production, the editor of the newspaper is played by Mary Pommerich, but her performance is stilted in the substantial role; she has command of her lines, but not of the rhythm or emotions that go with them.
Sound effects helped. Except when they didn’t. In a scene that takes place at the printer’s, when a door to the printing press is opened, the industrial whir of the machine is heard. Door closes – it stops. It suggested, in the theater of the mind, another room, until the sound fell out of synch with the opening and closing of the door. Then it just became a magic trick revealed.
The music track that opens the play and accompanies the set changes come from the Moog synthesizers of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Sonically and thematically, it’s an odd juxtaposition, and one time it rose up on top of an actress’ lines, then abruptly cut off so she could finish. But it was a blessing to have the music during the set changes, which were slow and cumbersome.
The backdrops of the set were simple – if not simple to rearrange – including a clever set piece that suggested a dining room by showing a sliver of a crowded dinner table. Staff Players made the most of their compact stage by resorting to Expressionistic constructs, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But the lack of door handles on the doors caused a bit of fumbling that door handles would have fixed.
A smaller budget doesn’t have to handicap the artistry or merit of a work. Kathryn Bigelow and her film Hurt Locker proved that last Sunday. For some, the technical glitches and the acting hiccups may interfere with their immersion in this story of the political machinations of power. But one can focus, instead, on Ibsen’s words – fervent proclamations and unwieldy summations of challenging ideas – rather than on the delivery of those words. Or, director Nick Hovick can get hold of the reigns of this production and do what Staff Players did last year with Waiting for Lefty – deliver a production that has more energy than budget.