truth hurts: Mandy Patinkin in WTF’s An Enemy of
Spa Is Cleaning Itself
By Ralph Hammann
Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen, translated
by Christopher Hampton, directed by Gerald Freedman
Williamstown Theatre Festival,
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
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
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