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Social and Political Issues Stand the Test of Time in An Enemy of the People

Ibsen's drama about clean water and dirty politics comes to the Goodman Theatre.

Rebecca Hurd, Jesse Bhamrah, Philip Earl Johnson, Lanise Antoine Shelley, and Aubrey Deeker Hernandez in Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, adapted and directed by Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, now playing at the Goodman Theatre, is an evergreen study of morality, transparency, and pragmatism in politics. Though it premiered in Norway in 1883, it is significantly relevant to America in 2018, where a new adaptation by artistic director Robert Falls eschews the formality of a fully period production, allowing the timelessness of the piece to shine through.

An Enemy of the People follows the principled Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Philip Earl Johnson) as he tries to expose the contamination of the medicinal baths that serve as the bedrock of his town's economy. Thomas's brother Peter (Scott Jaeck), who is the mayor of the town, would prefer to handle such matters internally — that is, bury them until it's more financially feasible to address them. It's a no-win scenario.

Dr. Stockmann is initially championed by members of the press: Editor Hovstad (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez), journalist Billing (Jesse Bhamrah), and printer Aslaksen (Allen Gilmore) all vow their support. But their allegiance is self-serving and fueled by fear, so it only takes a few well-placed words from Mayor Stockmann to shift their loyalties. As the Stockmann brothers lock horns over the future of the town, Thomas must determine exactly how much he is willing to sacrifice in his crusade for the truth.

On paper, Dr. Stockmann is a hard man to root for. He's a man of science who prioritizes fact over faith, but he's enamored of his own mind. He takes a perverse glee in being proved right, even at the cost of his own well-being and his family's safety. Crucially, Johnson's sincere performance elevates Stockmann from a vainglorious blowhard to the kind of vainglorious blowhard that you can believe in.

Jaeck matches Johnson blow for blow as the elder Stockmann brother. His Mayor Peter Stockmann blusters and bellows with remarkable vocal control, appearing simultaneously intimidating and pathetic. Packing a powerhouse performance into a small role, David Darlow threatens to steal the show as Morten Kiil, Thomas's wily and vindictive father-in-law. The female Stockmanns are no less impressive. As Petra, Thomas's adult daughter from a previous marriage, Rebecca Hurd is sharply sardonic, and Lanisse Antoine Shelley radiates warmth as Katherine, Thomas's wife and one of the only truly empathetic characters onstage.

Falls's adaptation seems to take place in a fashionable space between the past and the present. Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic outfits the principal cast in bright colors and warm knits that mix modern pieces with 19th-century silhouettes. Todd Rosenthal's set is dominated by a large glass plane that takes new forms as it rotates, becoming the industrial walls of Aslaksen's printing press, the low ceiling of the town meeting hall, or the slanted roof of the Stockmann home, where the cozy textures evoke the oh-so-trendy hygge movement.

Dozens of faceless extras pack the stage in this large-scale production that honors Ibsen's work while winking at today's political personalities (mentions of deplorables and alternative facts pepper the dialogue). Though it is a product of another century, Ibsen's play is as timely as ever, as access to clean water is in contention in Flint, Michigan, in Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. With an incendiary performance from Johnson leading the way, An Enemy of the People is a success from start to finish.

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