By Lucy Komisar
The mayor in a small coastal town in Norway promotes a town development project that turns out to be toxic. He gets the local newspaper editor to cooperate in suppressing the truth. The doctor who has discovered the danger is the mayor‘s brother, but the politician has no qualms in trying to destroy him – to label him an “enemy of the people” — for threatening his position and the financial benefits the project would bring.
A modern story about fracking? No, a play written more than a hundred years ago by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright. He was writing in 1882 about a health spa that has been contaminated by runoff from a local tannery.
In a riveting production by Rebecca Lenkiewicz at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Boyd Gaines plays Dr. Thomas Stockmann who insists on telling the truth though it may cost his livelihood. And worse. The play could not be more relevant in the age of corporate despoliation of the environment in which politicians are complicit.
The sets by John Lee Beatty are sepia, the costumes brown and gray or black, reminding one of old photos. It‘s a period piece, but director Doug Hughes makes the story live in the present as well as the past. There‘s nothing in the actors‘ demeanor that is dated.
The town and private investors have paid a lot of money to develop a spa that will bring tourists and profits. But the spa‘s builders have set the pipes so low that they carry harmful pollutants from the tannery. To safeguard the spa‘s customers, they should drain the swamp and reset the pipes. But Mayor Peter Stockmann (Richard Thomas), who is Thomas‘ brother, asks him if he knows what is involved: two years and a hundred thousand crowns. He declares, “I am the moral guardian of this town. The world doesn‘t revolve around science. It‘s about money.”
When he can‘t get officials to act, Stockmann, who is the medical officer at the baths, writes the local newspaper to tell the truth about the contaminated waters.
Here we think we will find integrity. Billing (James Waterston), a reporter, protests about the infernal swarm of bureaucratic civil servants. Hovstad (John Procaccino), editor of the ironically named “The Peoples’ Messenger,” declares, “Everybody in this town has mislaid a backbone.” Billing says, “It‘s a revolution.” He seems quite the militant. Hovstad says they need to throw out the incompetents. And the doctor remarks that when one starts to pull down a building, it goes to the foundations.
So, are the protectors of the public interest going to shine a flashlight on the dirty public house? Not so fast. The printer is politically on the left, but he urges restraint when it comes to local authorities. Aaah. The journalist and editor follow.
Ibsen didn‘t limit his critique to corrupt officials. The doctor holds a meeting to persuade the townsfolk that the baths should be closed. He speaks eloquently about the responsibility of the lone individual. He also has class politics, declaring that the poor need a say in local affairs. He wants emancipation for the oppressed.
Will the people heed him? The realistic dénouement suggests that the power equation hasn‘t changed in more than a century.
Boyd Gaines is powerful as the doctor who fights for what is right against the self-serving, self-interested officials and influentials of the town. Waterston and Procaccino are fine as they turn into cowardly protectors of the moneyed interests. It‘s a story that‘s up to the minute. Fracking? Yes, by inference it‘s also about that.
“An Enemy of the People.” Written by Henrik Ibsen; adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Adapted and directed by Doug Hughes. Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200; http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/season/2012-2013-season. Opened Sept 27, 2012; closes Nov 18, 2012. 11/7/12.