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An Enemy of the People

A timely and fresh adaptation by Amy Herzog of Ibsen's drama about an approaching epidemic which a town refuses to recognize.

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Jeremy Strong in a scene from Sam Gold’s production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” at the Circle in the Square Theatre (Photo credit: Emilio Madrid)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

The concept of alternate facts was not created under the Trump Administration. In 1882 Henrik Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in which a medical report that a town’s new spa is polluted by toxic bacteria which will cause an epidemic is contradicted by financial and political interests which will be brought down by the revelation. Amy Herzog’s new American adaptation could not be timelier after the pandemic which we just underwent. This forceful and vigorous production led by television stars Jeremy Strong (Succession; Masters of Sex) and Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos; The White Lotus) is robustly staged by Herzog’s own husband, controversial director Sam Gold. This is a play that has been staged when needed at various times in our history such as Arthur Miller’s adaptation during the McCarthy Era.

An Enemy of the People dramatizes five themes that people need to be reminded of at this time: the danger of an uninformed populace, the fear of scientific evidence, the pervasiveness of pollution in our environment, the danger of blindly following demagogues, and economic concerns in the face of public health considerations. Dr. Anthony Fauci would not be surprised by what happens to the hero Dr. Thomas Stockmann in this play written 142 years ago, and the climate change deniers who have stated that even if climate change is true we can’t afford to deal with it would do well to see this play as should the rest of the population. Many of the events in Ibsen’s 19th century play have happened in recent years, (i.e. the discovery of lead in our drinking water, only 20% of the population having had more than two vaccinations against Covid, etc.), proving how prescient this play still is.

Michael Imperioli in a scene from Sam Gold’s production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” at the Circle in the Square Theatre (Photo credit: Emilio Madrid)

In a small town in southern Norway, Dr. Stockmann, the medical director of the new Baths which are yet to open in warmer weather, has discovered that the pipes from which they get their water are being polluted by the runoff from the local tanneries. This includes one owned by his father-in-law Morton Kiil. When he notifies the local liberal newspaper, The People’s Messenger, its editor Hovstad is thrilled to publish as is his printer Aslaksen, conservative Chair of the Property Owner’s Association, who represents the majority of the voters. Hovstad, a radical, also sees this pollution as endemic of the rot in the political establishment.

However, when the mayor, Peter Stockmann, Thomas’ older brother, gets wind of the news, he is furious with his brother for not consulting him first as his boss since it will be blamed on him as Chairman of the Baths and the stockholders for building the pipes where they authorized them as well as costing them a great deal of money to fix the problem. When he apprizes Hovstad and Aslaksen with the startling news that rebuilding the pipes will cost 400,000 crowns and take three years during which time the Baths will have to be shut down, they both suddenly turn against the doctor. Ironically, after the doctor is effectively silenced in the play’s climax, it turns out the mayor, the editor, and the tanner all need him to validate their own positions.

Caleb Eberhardt and Victoria Pedretti in a scene from Sam Gold’s production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” at the Circle in the Square Theatre (Photo credit: Emilio Madrid)

Herzog’s new adaptation is spare and clean in its contemporary language, weeding out the Victorian turns of phrase that usually embellish the play. She has also reduced the cast list, eliminating the doctor’ wife (applying her necessary lines to his daughter Petra), his younger son Morten, and making the older son Eilif an offstage character. However, the apolitical ship captain Horster is made much younger (in his 20’s) than usual which seems like a mistake as it takes a while to climb the ranks. Some of Ibsen’s iconic lines (“The strongest man in the world is he who most stands alone”) have been eliminated but she has added some jibes of her own: Petra’s “I keep having this terrible thought …  they deserve what comes to them” in reference to the coming epidemic which the powers that be wish to keep quiet.

Sam Gold’s productions tend to be staged around a design concept which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t: his Glass Menagerie and Macbeth, both staged as rehearsals with props in full view of the audience, his Othello set in an army barracks, his King Lear in which the title character was played by a woman in an all-gold unit set, and his A Doll’s House, Part II set in a corner of an almost bare room. If you are wondering why the Circle in the Square was chosen for a well-made play from the 19th century written for a proscenium stage here with the audience sitting on four sides of the playing area, it becomes obvious and inventive in the fourth act town hall meeting. During the intermission, the audience is invited up to a counter which appears on stage for drinks and then some of them are asked to remain on stage to listen to Dr. Stockmann’s lecture. With this additional crowd and Dr. Stockmann addressing the audience, the scene becomes much more powerful than usual, making the viewers complicit in what happens in the eventual mob rule.

Victoria Pedretti, Caleb Eberhardt and Jeremy Strong in a scene from Sam Gold’s production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” at the Circle in the Square Theatre (Photo credit: Emilio Madrid)

The cast made up of seven speaking roles is excellent and fully up to the job of putting over this now classic play. As Dr. Thomas Stockmann, Strong is a naïve idealist who will not compromise his principles, but comes to learn from his experiences. Imperioli, well-known for playing morally ambiguous characters, is fine as the self-righteous mayor. Caleb Eberhardt is convincing as the hypocritical editor Hovstad who puts economics and ambition before his ethics. Thomas Jay Ryan who has often played conservative characters seemingly afraid of their own shadow is excellent as Aslaksen. Victoria Pedretti as Petra, the doctor’s liberal-minded daughter, has all the qualities of the outspoken modern woman. David Patrick Kelly is both amusing and scary as the doctor’s limited but amoral father-in-law Morten Kiil. Alan Trong seems too young as Captain Horster, but that is how Herzog has rewritten the part.

The clever set design is the work of the collective dots. The four-sided playing area at Circle in the Square is used for Dr. Stockmann’s sitting room and dining room, the office of The People’s Messenger, and main room of Captain Horster’s spacious house with few changes. David Zinn’s costumes are faithful to the formality of the late Victorian era in which the play is set. Part of Isabella Byrd’s lighting design includes historically accurate oil lamps from the 1880’s. While Sam Gold’s production of An Enemy of the People is not bigger than the sum of its parts, it does offer a timely and engrossing play for our moment in history.

An Enemy of the People (through June 16, 2024)

Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.anenemyofthepeopleplay.com

Running time: two hours including a ten minute pause

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (969 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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