Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ibsen's "Enemy of The People" Tells a Sadly Familiar Story

Posted By on Thu, May 5, 2016 at 12:55 PM

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The Wikipedia entry for Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People opens with this quote from the playwright:
“I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama. It may have many traits of comedy, but it also is based on a serious idea.”

These seemingly contradictory impulses are on full display in the CentreStage Theatre Company’s production of the play, which continues through May 8 at Midtown’s Evergreen Theatre. Dr. Stockman (Adam Remsen) has been a major force in creating his hometown’s newest attraction: a hot springs where Mayor Peter Stockman (Jon W. Sparks), hopes the sick and stressed will flock to take the healing waters.

But Dr. Stockman has made a disturbing discovery. To save money, the intakes for the bathhouses have been built too close to a tannery, owned by Dr. Stockman’s skinflint father-in-law Morten Kiil (Ron Gordon), and the mineral waters that have been advertised as pure and healing are in fact contaminated with disease and poison. Hosted, the reform-minded publisher of the local paper, is eager to publish the story, and as the first act closes, Dr. Stockman is ecstatic, believing he has saved countless lives and his city’s reputation.

But, since this is Scandinavian comic/drama, things don’t quite work out that way. The entire town has invested heavily in the hot springs and the related businesses they expect to spring up around it to cater to tourists. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Dr. Stockman is in for a rude awakening, as Ibsen’s script (translated into English by Arthur Miller in 1950) slowly turns the screws on him, fatally puncturing his sense of scientific nobility.
Remsen’s Dr. Stockman and Spark’s Mayor are the yin and yang at the heart of this production, and they play off each other beautifully. Remsen expertly traces Stockman’s arc from would-be town savior to the titular enemy of the people, while Sparks is perfect as the resolute politician who effortlessly outmaneuvers his well-meaning but myopic brother. The other standout performances include Dana Terle as Catherine, Dr. Stockman’s long-suffering wife, and Ron Gordon, who imbues Morten with a wry, flinty wit.

Veteran Memphis director Marler Stone’s production could not come at a more relevant time. So many of our current cultural conflicts, from climate change to the Flint water poisoning crisis to the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, revolve around the question of the short-term cost of doing the long-term right thing. How would you react if you found out that a major local business was destroying your health? Before you answer, did you know that the Vesco refinery on President’s Island is leaking tons of poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas every year? Kinda puts all that cheap gas in perspective, doesn’t it? An Enemy Of The People proves that Ibsen was thinking clearly and deeply about these issues 136 years ago. 

Editor's Note: Thanks to Memphis Flyer film editor Chris McCoy for stepping in and doing this while I was involved with Cookie Ewing's retirement party at Rhodes and the Johnny Cash historical marker unveiling in Cooper Young this past weekend. Enemy of the People is one of my favorite plays I never thought I'd live to see performed in Memphis. Hoping to catch it this weekend — Chris Davis.  

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