Never mind how Jesus might vote in the upcoming election. More to the point is how Henrik Ibsen might cast his ballot, since his 1882 political drama, “An Enemy of the People,” argues both sides of an ideological conundrum that has tripped up both presidential candidates. Purists may flinch at Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s bare-bones adaptation, which diminishes all the secondary characters and strips all the (admittedly repetitive) subplots of their nuance. But when Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas square off for the Cain-and-Abel power play between brothers, we could be on the hustings.
Helmer Doug Hughes has smartly staged that climactic showdown in the orchestra of the theater. Although Ibsen makes it quite clear that Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines) keeps a modest home and struggling medical practice in the seaside Norwegian town where the play is set, the cramped rooms and low ceilings of John Lee Beatty’s submarine-scaled set feel so confining that it’s a release to see the actors stride down the aisle and take their places both on stage and in the front rows of the auditorium.
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But before we get to the fireworks, there’s a little thing called a plot that has to be set up. In this austere version, it’s quickly established that Stockmann, a man of science, has amassed incontrovertible evidence that the local tannery owned by his rich father-in-law has contaminated the medicinal public baths that are expected to bring immediate prosperity to his economically depressed and slowly recovering town.
Last seen on Broadway in “The Columnist,” Gaines is a protean performer (he sings! he dances! he does drama!) adept at physically insinuating himself into a role while playing beyond type. Eyes ablaze with idealistic fervor, the thesp perfectly captures the messianic fervor with which Stockmann triumphantly commits his findings to an incendiary expose to be published in the local liberal newspaper.
Without missing a beat, Gaines also plays the colossal arrogance of the “pure” idealist who naively expects the citizens of the town to declare him a hero for plunging them back into economic ruin. Gaines even taps into the lack of self-awareness that makes Stockmann so touching in his childish yearning to exchange the anonymity of his dull life for a taste of fame and fortune and good times. “It was pretty grim,” he admits, in Lenkiewicz’s overly idiomatic treatment of the colloquial language Ibsen chose for this play.
Going into the public forum to justify his findings to the townspeople, Stockmann looks like a fatted fly waiting to be gobbled up by his evil spider of a brother, the town Mayor underplayed to chilling effect by Richard Thomas. Subtle villain that he is, Thomas keeps the Mayor’s self-serving manipulations literally hidden under the slouch hat and oversized black overcoat designed by Catherine Zuber. His soft voice and reserved manner a menacing contrast to his brother’s bombastic truth-telling, the Mayor quietly stirs the ignorant populace into a violent mob.
Falling into his brother’s trap, Stockmann opens his defense in classic Romney mode, exposing the voters (that is, his fellow citizens) as the uneducated ignoramuses they are. After denouncing the town politicians for their cynicism, greed and hypocrisy, he identifies the “deadliest enemies of freedom and truth.” And who, pray tell, would that be?
“The most dangerous public enemy is the majority!” rants Stockmann, who is shocked — shocked! — that the “common man” should refuse to acknowledge the intellectually superior specimens of his own species. How can the unwashed and uneducated masses deny that they perpetuate their own ignorance by violently suppressing anything nobler than their own selfishly conservative values?
By the time that Stockmann recovers himself and takes a more democratic position — explaining that he is not referring to the false superiority of personal wealth or social class or political power, but the genuine superiority of a noble character — the damage has been done.
Clearly, MTC has lucked out with its timing of this classic drama, its Victorian-era polemics ordinarily a bit simplistic — but given the peculiar insanity of election politics, right on the money.