An Enemy of the People
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
September 29, 2012
The story of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People certainly continues to resonate some 130 years after it was written. What with hydrofracking threatening our water supply and various politicos threatening to repeal environmental laws, the idea of a spa town threatened by industrial pollution seems frighteningly topical. As presented by Manhattan Theatre Club in a new version by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, under the direction of Doug Hughes, the tale remains engaging. A Norwegian spa town’s major tourist industry is threatened when the spa’s doctor, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, discovers that the spa’s water supply is being contaminated by runoff from the local tannery. At first, the townspeople hail the Doctor as a savior, but when the significant cost of renovation to the water system is brought to light by the town’s mayor (and the Doctor’s brother) Peter Stockmann, the populous turns against the Doctor and his family.
Boyd Gaines does a fine job of portraying the complex Dr. Stockman. His journey from town hero through martyred avenger to noble warrior is a pleasure to watch. Richard Thomas as Peter Stockmann is perhaps not as successful, as there is almost no nuance to his approach. True, the Mayor is a rather one-dimensional villain, yet we are given almost nothing to like about the man which makes the confrontations between the brothers monotonous as our sympathies are unilaterally steered to the Doctor. Couldn’t the director have helped flesh out this character? Kathleen McKenny as Catherine and Maïté Alina as Petra give very nice interpretations of mother and daughter Stockmann. Again, the dramaturgical underpinnings are thin, but they make the most of what is there. The rest of the supporting players do good work, though their individual interpretations of character are not always consistent to what appears to be the director’s desired naturalism (some performances are a little too self-aware).
Ah…Naturalism… one would think the bread and butter of interpreting Ibsen. You know, being “real” and “in the moment” or, as close to the natural way that human beings behave as is possible in the make believe world of theater. Yet in this production with this set design and with this staging the approach is ultimately unsatisfying.
The set, by John Lee Beatty feels like a clunky Norwegian sauna, sturdily constructed of apparent red hardwood – the multiple door slammings are particularly loud, thudding and aurally satisfying. But efforts at making a real-life setting of multiple scenes using a turntable in the confines of the Samuel J. Friedman Theater stage result in most of the rooms being wide with very little depth. Consequently, three of four rooms are as wide as the stage and only a few paces deep. The fourth set, that of the Brockmann sitting-dining rooms, has depth, but Beatty has placed a large divan downstage center effectively cutting off the upstage acting areas. All this limits the staging possibilities and the actors are thus usually on the same plane. In addition, what was the story behind the gauze half curtain that obscured the stage at the top of the show and swept across the stage as a scenic swipe during set changes? It looked like half a scraggy scim and was out of place as an expressionistic element on a naturalistic set.
Directorially, there is a lot of talking “to” each other in this production. That is, when characters converse they inevitably face each other. This may seem “naturalistic” to the actor, like talking to someone in a film or teleplay, but it is just not stage worthy in a theater which has a proscenium. What happens is that the audience is shut out of the equation. In addition, Hughes has made some mystifying choices in his staging. For instance, Boyd’s major revelatory speech as the Doctor in act one is done with a position downstage with his back to the audience and the other actors staring at him with various frozen facial expressions. Also, the big fight between the brothers is placed at the dining table, where they both sit, one to the right, one to the left, yelling at each other in profile to the audience. No movement, no action, just yelling. Why didn’t someone say to someone that you don’t always raise your voice when you are angry, and, you don’t always look at someone when you are talking to them. I’ll bet, in fact, that often it is more “natural” to at least occasionally look away from someone when you are arguing about something passionately. It is only in the scene where the Stockmann brothers address the populace at a meeting that the actors share directly with the audience, and this is because the audience is made part of the populace, with the actors speaking out as if we are “there.” Finally, we get to see a full face.
As to the other production elements, the costumes by Catherine Zuber suit the characters and the period well. The lighting by Ben Stanton is mostly very nicely appropriate to the scenes and sometimes also beautiful without calling attention to itself. However there are a few perplexing internal cues that are contrary to what seems to be the overarching Naturalism approach. In particular, there is an obvious cue in the opening scene that isolates the action on the two brothers arguing in the living area and brings down the lighting on the dining area where other characters are having dinner. Apparently, the designer and director thought we audience couldn’t focus on the leads without help from the lights -- not very Naturalistic. Finally, the sound design and original music by David Van Tieghems was not successful. Inter-scene music attempts to heighten dramatic tension seemed more like television commercial lead-ins and sound effects of the crowd surrounding the audience in the aforementioned meeting scene seem superfluous.
All the parts of this Broadway show just did not seem to come together. It would have been nice if all the elements had risen to the level of the acting.