Over the years, Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” has proven to be a remarkably resilient and pliable text. In the 1950s, Arthur Miller turned the 19 th-century tale of a Norwegian doctor standing up for the truth into a searing indictment of McCarthyist persecution. Now, in “Paragon Springs,” Steven Dietz has translated the action to a Wisconsin spa town in 1926. There’s an interesting immigrant connection between the upper Midwest and Ibsen’s small-town Norway, but “Paragon Springs” feels destined to remain of local interest only.
Dietz, who has premiered many of his plays at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater , has long shown an interest in adaptations as well as new plays. He has an uncommon ability to craft original plots (as in “Private Eyes”) or to take period settings and inject them with Stoppardian intellectual complexity. Such was the case with “Force of Nature,” Dietz’s fascinating recent adaptation of Goethe’s “Elective Affinities.”
But he seems strangely hemmed in by Ibsen. Part of the problem here is that “Paragon Springs” falls into that uneasy place between a completely new play (there are some new characters and changes in the plot) and an adaptation of the original. Dietz is such a master of the twisting narrative that when he’s working with one that already exists, you can almost sense his frustration.
That said, “Paragon Springs” is certainly a clever piece. The title town is engaged in a fierce battle with its neighbors to snag its share of the booming tourist industry. The ace in Paragon Springs’ hand is a spa with supposedly healing powers. But when the spa’s resident doc, Thomas Stockman, suddenly declares that dangerous bacteria float in the waters, the town is faced with a tough issue.
As in the original play, folks basically line up on the side of financial expediency, turning Stockman and his family into isolated pariahs. The owner of the spa is Stockman’s brother, Peter, adding a fraternal twist to the hostilities. Peter Stockman quickly enlists the town’s fledgling newspaper and radio station — run by a pair of brothers — in his cause of discrediting his own brother.
Some of the Ibsen elements translate better than others. The Scandinavian names are certainly a fine match with Wisconsin in the 1920s, and Paragon Springs has the right kind of isolation that allows the original idea to stand up well. But the device of the town meeting seems forced and overly quaint here, as do some of Stockman’s speeches about right and wrong. Dietz also seems to let the setting overwhelm the ideas — always a danger with this kind of project.
Part of the problem is that Hanreddy’s production needs a lighter touch. Although resident Milwaukee actors like James Pickering are impassioned, some of the more emotional moments are overtaken by needless bombast. Hanreddy’s staging is slick but also relies on flashy gimmicks. The show would be better off taking a more thoughtful approach. There is, however, a delightful evil turn to enjoy from the splendid Ron Frazier as bitter Peter Stockman.
“Paragon Springs” is perhaps a reasonable way to introduce Ibsen to upper Midwesterners, but that’s about all that’s achieved here. Dietz, clearly, is at his best with a less constricting narrative canvas.