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The truth hurts: Mandy Patinkin in WTF’s An Enemy of the People.

The Spa Is Cleaning Itself
By Ralph Hammann

An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by Gerald Freedman

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Aug. 24

An Enemy of the People may be the quintessential play about the individual’s stand against corrupt society. It has, arguably, influenced countless works as seemingly disparate as The Crucible and Jaws in which an enlightened minority is set in opposition to a selfish majority who stupidly follow even more selfish leaders. While Ibsen had ample opportunity to witness such societal behavior, which is the history of the world, he experienced it first-hand from the public reactions to his plays, in which he sought to redress ills of civilization rather than offer pleasant diversions.

So he wrote An Enemy of the People and channeled his own anger and indignation into Dr. Stockmann, its protagonist. The medical officer of the public baths in a Norwegian town, Stockmann discovers that the waters feeding the health spa are infested with dangerous bacteria. Once a respected member of the society, Stockmann becomes its pariah when he threatens to speak the truth about the tourist attraction on which the town’s financial future rests.

The play pits Stockman against nearly the entire town, including the mayor, the government, the liberal press, the silent majority, taxpayers, stockholders and people from every class of society. That the problem can be corrected in time and with additional expense passed onto the town’s property owners is no answer when set against the pervasive greed that infects the town. The people are quite willing to perpetrate a deceit and build their lives on the foundation of a lie even if it harms innocent people. The 121-year-old play is eerily familiar.

It is fortunate that Ibsen’s voice still resounds and that theaters and actors of influence and conscience still produce him (although I understand that An Enemy of the People was only produced three times in London in the last century—an appalling shortcoming).

Gerald Freedman’s concept of presenting the play as a tech rehearsal in rehearsal clothes so that we can more easily see its universality is unnecessary. Only a moron could fail to see the universality of this play when meticulously set and costumed in its original time period. Would Freedman apply the same thinking to The Crucible in which Arthur Miller found it efficacious to expose the foibles of present day by presenting them in a past context? It is the realization that people are the same beasts they’ve always been that enhances the play’s impact and makes Stockmann’s lone voice so heroic.

Mandy Patinkin’s star status may have been the impetus behind this production, but his prodigious talent forcefully drives it and gives it its dynamic center. Patinkin honors the Hampton translation by finely underscoring sufficient chinks in the character so that Stockmann doesn’t appear a whitewashed hero. His Stockmann is resolutely human and flawed, and the heroic act becomes all the more meaningful because of this. Understanding the barometer and the meter of each line, Patinkin delivers the speeches with beautiful modulation and compelling vocal variety. Even where the translation might be a trifle stilted, Patinkin plays it with casual authority and spontaneity. It is a bravura performance, heroic in its reach and completely stirring.

An excellent cast supports Patinkin, although I’d qualify the praise for Larry Pine who is not quite assured enough in his delivery and who paints the mayor a bit simplistically in broad strokes and monochromatic values. T. Scott Cunningham and Peter Maloney are particularly effective in transforming from supporters of the truth to spineless, hollow men. As Stockman’s daughter, Dana Powers Acheson provides a necessary light in the increasing gloom, while Annalee Jefferies is appropriately self-effacing as Mrs. Stockmann.

Eschewing naturalism for some symbolic or expressionist touches, designer John Ezell’s stunning set features three huge windows with broken glass and cracks radiating dramatically from the epicenters where rocks were thrown. A representation of a large printing press with three massive spinning gears offers a dynamic symbol of the daunting, outsized political, media and social machinery that Stockmann must face.

Fully nourishing, inspiring and provoking, this is theater as social reformer at its best. It should be produced wherever lies, greed, cowardice and political correctness undermine truth, i.e. throughout the nation. We may not want to hear such lines as, “What does it matter if a society founded on lies is destroyed? I say it ought to be leveled!” but it does us good.

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