The corruption of the simplest matter by partisan politics was as rife in 1882 Norway as it is in America, and throughout the world, today if you use Henrik Ibsen’s timeless play, “An Enemy of the People,” as evidence.
One difference is Ibsen removes ambivalence from the case he presents. He gives his protagonist, Thomas Stockmann (Kevin Bergen), a scientist and medical doctor, solid proof of his claim that the water in the mineral baths that economically support a small coastal town is a tainted detriment to residents and tourists. Stockmann produces a conclusive university laboratory report that bacteria and industrial waste from the bath’s source caused typhoid fever, gastric ailments, and life-threatening conditions that affected bathers the previous year. Debate should be moot.
Before Stockmann can explain his findings and recommend a remedy, uproar emerges that turns this benevolent, heroic whistleblower into the play title’s “enemy” of his neighbors and respectable society. Irrefutable science is doubted and denigrated. The possibly prohibitive cost of repairing the baths is weighed against the revenue and tourism lost if they’re closed, polluted or not. The financial well-being of the town and its citizens becomes an appeal for popular support of a cover-up. Truth becomes subordinate to spin, reality to pragmatism and self-interest. The allegedly liberal press, and at least one market speculator, show their stripes as the fray develops. Human nature and the vulnerability of democracy are addressed. Ibsen has provided a vivid, cogent, distinct portrait of how strategically applied political influence and the purposeful concealing of salient, perhaps persuasive, facts, can sway a group and turn them from individual thinkers to a vindictive, unreasoning herd, unwilling and unable to fully examine a weighty issue.
Susan D. Atkinson takes a plain, straightforward approach to all Ibsen broaches in her production of “An Enemy of the People,” for Bristol Riverside Theater. Using a discerning translation by Brian Johnston and Rick Davis, Atkinson shrewdly allows domestic scenes and confrontations, particularly those between Stockmann and his brother, Peter (Brian Drillinger), the town mayor and chairman of the baths, to unveil their intrinsic drama by having them play as naturalistically as possible. Atkinson’s close focus on each episode defines the sides that individuals and factions will take and makes it more pointed, and comic, when and why allegiances change.
Atkinson is not out to dazzle. She opts more for accessibility than depth. Bristol’s “An Enemy of the People” becomes a cautionary tale of human dynamics and the manipulation of information rather than a wrenching view of a worthy man being crushed by persevering to make justice, practicality, and good policy prevail. “An Enemy of the People” can be played so the audience is kept in suspense about which of the Stockmann brothers speaks with the most probity. Atkinson elects to show Thomas in the right from the outset, with Peter as the Machiavellian spinmeister. Her choice, a correct one, makes us seethe all the more as Thomas is denigrated and discredited to an extent he is not given leave to speak about his findings at a town meeting he arranges for that express purpose.
The battle between the Stockmanns, and tangentially between Thomas and the editor of a local newspaper (Marc LeVasseur) and the avowed leader of the town’s small businessman and middle class householders (P. Brendan Mulvey), make for heady viewing. At Bristol, one irony is Bergen and Drillinger, though assaying their pivotal roles with authority, are often overshadowed in their performances by Mulvey, LeVasseur, and Keith Baker, as Thomas’s wily father-in-law, Morten Kiil, because of their stronger voices and more classical approach to their characters. Mulvey and Baker especially attract attention — Mulvey for his sincerity as a citizen who wants moderation in everything, Baker for the entertaining manner in which he keeps Kiil an opportunistic fox who enjoys the fray the Stockmanns have fostered.
Mulvey, LeVasseur, Baker, and Shamus Hunter McCarty, as a biased newspaper reporter, give Atkinson’s production clarity and texture. Bergen and Drillinger are the ones charged with keeping all at the forefront of the audience’s minds, and they do a fine job. Drillinger conveys Peter’s ability to know and exploit all of Thomas’s weaknesses and character flaws. Bergen proceeds with the cheer and the energy that makes a crusader and a scientist who is always thinking and working to put his ideas into words and finding them a practical application. His Thomas is upbeat and optimistic even when the most thwarted and disappointed.
Bergen has a voluminous second-act speech, the content of which comes as a surprise and risks turning all audiences, the town’s and Bristol’s, against Thomas. While Bergen comes on strongly and makes major points towards the end of this diatribe, he does not grab the house at the beginning and needs to concentrate on binding more of a spell.
Ibsen, for all he shows Thomas to be the honorable, moral hero, robs his central figure of ammunition by never having him cite or refer to the university confirmation of his discovery following the time he receives it in the mail. This shows, as does Atkinson’s staging, that Ibsen was more dedicated to exposing the techniques of politics and the hazards lurking in majority rule than he was at arguing the pollution issue at hand.
Sabrina Profitt has a steadying influence as Thomas’s wife, who can be critical and self-interested but is a good moral partner to her husband. Laura Giknis conveys great loyalty as Thomas’s independent daughter, Petra. Nathan Esser impresses as Thomas’s inquisitive son. Mark Collmer is solid as a sea captain who stand by Thomas and his family.
Jason Simm’s open, impressionistic set shows the scope and transparency of Thomas’s acts. Gina Andreoli’s costumes, for primary characters and a community ensemble that gives Atkinson’s production an idea of masses at work, are on the mark. Amy Kaissar co-direct with Atkinson.
An Enemy of the People, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. Through Sunday, May 31, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $36 to $46. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.