Thomas Stockmann is ecstatic. A prosperous, warm-hearted doctor who serves as the medical officer at the baths that constitute the backbone of the economy of the small Norwegian town in which he lives, he has confirmed something of vital importance: The baths’ waters are polluted and pose a health risk to anyone who uses them. Now the problem can be fixed, and the danger averted. He’ll be hailed as a hero, he’s sure.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way.
In Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama — which the Centenary Stage Company is currently presenting at the Sitnik Theatre in Hackettstown, with Randall Duk Kim as Stockmann — this character’s righteous convictions put him at odds with nearly everyone else in town. Most notable among his foes are the town’s mayor, his brother Peter (David Cantor), who likes to think of himself as progressive, but isn’t.
You see, the contamination will be very expensive to fix, and the baths will have to close for a significant period of time, and that’s a hardship that Peter and other powers-that-be in the town are unwilling to endure. And so they want to do something Thomas finds unimaginable: sweep the problem under the rug, even though that means endangering the baths’ patrons.
Thomas fights the good fight and, in turn, gets unfairly branded an enemy of the people. Newspaper editor Hovstad (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) and publisher Aslaksen (Michael Irvin Pollard), who also serves as chairman of the local homeowners association, are initially on his side. But they turn on him, too — the slimy Aslaksen calls it a matter of “moderation,” when what he’s really doing is avoiding the truth — and that leaves as the doctor’s only allies his wife (Colleen Smith-Wallnau) and three children, and ship captain Horster (Chris Kolwicz). And they all end up suffering.
In the second act, much of which is made up of a town meeting at which Thomas desperately argues his case, co-directors Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso smartly have 20 or 30 actors stand or sit among the audience, shouting angrily: We feel the irrational rage of the mob.
One doesn’t have to work hard to make the case that this is a good time to revive “An Enemy of the People.” Three days after I saw this production, President Trump used the phrase “a true enemy of the people” in a tweet, to describe the New York Times after it printed this unflattering article about him. And climate change deniers are obviously doing just what the mayor does, obstinating refusing to acknowledge a problem that is likely to create dire long-term problems for themselves and/or future generations.
I think this is an important play, and I hope as many people as possible see it. That said, it isn’t for everyone. Its characters can seem awfully long-winded, by modern standards, or preachy. “It’s not just a matter of water and sewers,” the crusading doctor states at one point. “All of society must be cleansed and purified!”
Also, my Thomas Stockmann-like commitment to the truth compels me to report that some of the actors, on the night I saw the play (its first night), stumbled through their lines a bit, at times, correcting words that came out wrong or pausing a beat while appearing to search for the next phrase.
Presumably, that is improving in the course of the play’s run. That kind of thing usually does.
Unfortunately, the conditions that make a play such as “An Enemy for the People” an important work of art don’t seem likely to show a similar improvement, anytime soon.
Centenary State Company will present “An Enemy of the People” at the Sitnik Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown through March 3. Visit centenarystageco.org.