Originally written by Henrik Ibsen and adapted by Arthur Miller, An Enemy of the People is the tale of a small Norwegian town that has come into wealth and stability through medicinal waters arising from a local spring. The waters have brought visitors from far and wide and have begun to put this little town on the map. The story, however, centers on Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of the spring, who has his suspicions of a problem with the waters. Built against his original specifications, the water system is downhill from the local tannery, and Dr. Stockmann suspects that the runoff has poisoned the spring.
Having sent samples of the water off to a nearby university, Dr. Stockmann’s suspicions are confirmed – the water is poisoning those who drink it, and an entirely new water system must be built. Though Dr. Stockmann at first is overjoyed by the discovery, certain that he will be lauded for saving the people, he comes up against a firm adversary. His brother, mayor of the town and member of the board for the springs, claims that Dr. Stockmann is overexaggerating, even using the spring as a way to humiliate the mayor. Dr. Stockmann, enraged that someone could ignore scientific evidence and be so very shortsighted, takes his findings to the local liberal paper.
But getting the truth out there is not so easy. The mayor intervenes, talking to the paper of unintended consequences and overdramatization. Increasingly desperate, the doctor attempts to get his message out there, to warn the people that the water is poison, the spring must be shut down and rebuilt. But rhetoric and convenience, the call of fame and money, are on the side of the institution. And the mayor stirs up the masses, turning the town and the doctor’s friends against him, in order to continue increasing the wealth and status of the town.
I’d like to tell you that the ending of the play demonstrates a triumph of truth and justice, that the people eventually see the error of their ways and the facts of the matter. But like the inconvenient truth of the springs, the inconvenient truth of the play is that it sticks far closer to real life than we might like. The doctor and his family are threatened, nearly run out of town, attacked and demonized. Dr. Stockmann becomes an enemy of the people for the sake of the truth.
The whistleblower story is one we’ve certainly seen before (think Erin Brockovich and Silkwood and a hundred more), but the sincerity and nuance of the play as well as characters and situations that are all too familiar breathe new life into the common tale. And this link to modern America is where Limelight Theatre‘s production really shines. As the light dims between each scene, the voices of reporters and journalists come over the loudspeaker – talking about the water in Flint, Michigan. Later on, as the people start a “lock him up” chant at Dr. Stockmann, President Trump’s voice booms out and, behind him, his supporters scream “lock her up.”
The juxtaposition of the 19th-century play and the modern world refuses to let us shy away from the comparison. We may want to ignore, to pretend it’s the kind of drama that only happens far away or on the stage, but this production forces our eyes open.
As authentic as the story itself is, it requires actors who are willing to provide that authenticity. And the Limelight cast certainly delivers. Though there were the expected opening night flubbing of lines and moments lost to fumbling with timing, the actors never stray into the realm of melodrama but instead demonstrate a purity of emotion. Sebastian Conte’s Dr. Stockmann carries the show with his optimism and unwavering belief turned to desperation and finally embittered resolve. We never doubt his sincerity nor his motives, and though he speaks and acts passionately and starts out naive, the audience is always certain that he desires truth.
Playing against him, Trey Stripling’s Mayor Peter Stockmann is smooth-talking and the ultimate politician. Trey plays the part so convincingly, with such a true-to-life pretended sincerity that even the audience wavers for a moment in wondering if he might have a point. He’s the perfect villain for this story – underhanded but rarely outrightly hostile, always the “good of the town” as his top priority.
Dr. Stockmann’s wife Katherine, played by Heather Eggleston, shows the other side of resisting inconvenient truth. She doesn’t offer slick retorts, accusations, or denials; her concerns are far more personal. Katherine doesn’t start the play with the same optimism as her husband nor is she as naive about how the mayor and the town will react to the news. She begs Dr. Stockmann to consider his family, his job, their welfare, should he move forward with this. Heather makes tangible the serious conflict inside Katherine – she respects her husband, believes him, wants the best for the town. But she cannot ignore the definite consequences of speaking a harsh truth.
Though there are too many to name here, the rest of the cast plays their characters beautifully. They show the good or the bad that such a truth scandal can bring out in people; they show the myriad of consequences that come from upending people’s lives (on both side of the scandal). They have real concerns, practical concerns. Some turn on Dr. Stockmann for their own sakes and reveal their true colors. Others commit themselves to free speech, to verifiable truth.
If there’s anything to take away from this review, it’s this – go see the show. It’ll make you angry, dumbfounded, frustrated, but that’s what it wants to do. It wants you to open your eyes to the reality and consequences of unpalatable truths both on the stage in front of you and in the world around you.
Sponsored by The Stetson Kennedy Foundation, An Enemy of the People is on the Limelight Theatre stage January 11-February 3. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, visit www.limelight-theatre.org.