An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play-with-a-cause, isn't unfurled very often, which definitely makes Doug Hughes' thoroughly competent Manhattan Theatre Club revival at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater welcome. That's especially true, as the play (given a new translation here by Rebecca Lenkiewicz) deals with political spin, a topic that won't seem unfamiliar in 2012.
As we soon learn, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines), a scientist, has had a study done of the baths that serve as the main source of revenue for his tourist-dependent coastal Norwegian town. The findings are far from encouraging and reversing the situation will shut the spas for several years and cost the town much money, as well as its livelihood.
Not surprisingly, when the mayor – Thomas' brother, Peter (Richard Thomas) – learns the study is about to be made public, he insists it be suppressed. If not, he'll fire Tom from the revered position he holds, which will send his brother, wife Catherine (Kathleen McNenny), daughter Petra (Maite Alina) and two (unseen) sons back into the poverty from which they have just recently emerged.
Despite Catherine's request that Tom keep the family future in mind, the single-minded scientist is determined the study will prevail — especially because he believes he has the eternal backing of Hovstad (John Procaccino), the editor of the local newspaper, and Aslaksen (Gerry Bamman), the influential printer.
However, Tom doesn't realize how persuasive Peter can be, as the latter eventually persuades Hovstad and Aslaksen to retreat from their positions. Still, nothing discourages Tom – including a late-in-the play ploy by his wealthy father-in-law Morten Kill (Michael Siberry) – who remains certain that the truth will carry him through.
But today's viewers may not be so convinced that Tom employs the best pro-truth argument when addressing the townspeople in a volatile penultimate scene. Hughes uses the Friedman auditorium as the town hall so that Tom can come down into it before getting back on stage and climbing on a table for a rant in which he declares "there are only a few among us who discover new truths" and continues clobbering the unruly auditors over their heads by proclaiming his moral superiority.
It's as if a member of the American northeastern elite were to stand up in a Presidential campaign and boast that only he could be expected to implement the truth. The method undermines Tom as a sympathetic hero. He may not deserve to be labeled an enemy of the people, but he sure is an enemy of required tact and therefore a detriment to Ibsen's intentions.
Nonetheless, Gaines gives it his fiery all and Thomas hands in another of his considered performances – even if there are times when Hughes asks them and their colleagues to shout more than necessary to get their – and Ibsen's – timely points across.