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Lucy Komisar

"An Enemy of the People" brilliant 1882 critique speaks to today’s corruption

“An Enemy of the People”
Written by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Amy Herzog, directed by Sam Gold.
Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street, NYC.
https://anenemyofthepeopleplay.com/ Runtime 2 hours.
Opened March 18, 2024.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar March 22, 2024.
Closes June 23, 2024.

This play by Ibsen “En folkefiende,” written in 1882, was perhaps the West’s first environmental political play. Amy Herzog’s smart adaptation over a century later fits America today perfectly. It is about the utter corruption of a society where making money by powerful interests takes easy precedence over the health, even the death, of citizens.

Jeremy Strong as Thomas Stockmann. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

It is staged powerfully by Sam Gold, lit by gas lamps on a long narrow platform between two sides of the audience. You feel as if you are inside the events.

The town has invested a lot of money to create a spa that will draw tourists and make local commercial interests a lot of money. But Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a very solid citizen in a brown suit, vest, and moustache (the splendid Jeremy Strong), discovers that the water has been contaminated by a factory, the toxins seeped into the groundwater. Visitors would come down with typhoid. To make the spa safe, the water system would have to be dug up and be rerouted.

Caleb Eberhardt as Hovstad and Victoria Pedretti as Petra Stockmann. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Stockmann had told town officials earlier that the water pipes were set too low. But they wanted to save money. He is identified as a servant of the people. But Hovstad, the newspaper editor (Caleb Eberhard), reminds him, “All of the power in our town has gradually been consolidated in the hands of a few politicians. They’re politicians and their rich friends and allies – they’re wealthy people, we’re governed by the wealthy.”

After that, you hardly need to guess what happens. Segue to the U.S. And the corruption seeps into everything. Stockmann’s daughter Petra, a teacher, declares her job is to “lie to the children. That’s my job. Half of what I’m forced to teach them I don’t believe myself.”

Caleb Eberhardt as Hovstad and Jeremy Strong as Thomas Stockmann. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Hovstad tells Stockmann he supports him, that he grew up poor and wants to help the poor. And Aslaksen (Thomas Jay Ryan) the printer and chairman of the property association, says he’s also for a better water system. Does this begin to sound like liberal Democrats who are taking the right (left) path?

Well, then there is a shift. Turns out rerouting the water would take at least two years. Thomas Stockmann’s brother Peter (Michael Imperioloi) is the mayor. He accuses him of putting “your own reputation before the welfare of this town.” Of cutting off its income. But Thomas tells him, “We’re going to have an epidemic.”

So here’s the political conflict.

Petra says, “Uncle Peter will never forgive you. You might win this battle but you’ll still lose your job. And Thomas, “It that’s the price for telling the truth, and preventing a catastrophe.”  He says, “The water is dangerous and so are the people who don’t care who gets hurt.”

Michael Imperioli as Mayor Peter Stockmann. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

The mayor says, “If we’re going to make these repairs, it’ll have to come out of public funds.” And the editor says, “Unbelievable – these people have piles of money, and they’re going to rake in more once the resort is up and running…Like it or not, the investors are not going to put another crown into the Baths. The way they see it, they fulfilled their financial commitment and they’re done.”

And that is where the power is. So, the money people will continue to control the mayor and the editor, who will prevent Stockmann, literally, from speaking to the public.  Peter says: “The freedom to speak your mind is sacrosanct in our town. But when the community is under threat, when words can cause real harm, then we must use what power we have to keep these dangerous ideas from spreading.” Dangerous ideas? Familiar?

Suddenly people who supporting him are shifting. The editor says he is presenting theories as facts. He suddenly is aware, “I woke up to the incredible stupidity of the authorities in this town – I became aware of the ba?ing mistakes our leaders made when they built the Baths on a pile of shit.”

He will tell them, “You’re all corrupt. You’re going to hold on to whatever power you have for dear life.”

Victoria Pedretti as Petra Stockmann and Jeremy Strong as her father Thomas. Photo by Emilio Madrid.

And, “A society that lives on lies deserves to be exterminated! Before those lies spread and infect the entire country!”(shouting, boos, mayhem)

In an astonishing moment, he will be beaten up, his body thrown to the ground.

Later, he tells his daughter, “Let’s start packing, the sooner we get out of here the better. In America we won’t have to worry about – I don’t mind being disrespected, let them say whatever they want about me, what I can’t stand is living among these puppets who can’t think for themselves. Maybe it won’t be any di?erent in America, maybe I’m naïve to – but if nothing else there’s more space there, you can get away from ….”

Well, if you are looking to avoid puppets, don’t go to America! Which is apparently what Herzog wants to say!

The play is superbly acted, by Jeremy Strong as the doctor, Michael Imperioli as the mayor, Caleb Eberhardt as the editor, David Patrick Kelly as the printer, and Victoria Pedretti as Petra.

This is one of the most important theatrical events of the season.

Visit Lucy’s website http://thekomisarscoop.com/


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