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ďAn Enemy of the PeopleĒ

Henrik Ibsenís old-but-new drama at Williamstown Theatre Festival

In the middle of Act One, my companion leaned over and whispered, ďAll the men are wearing Dockers!Ē I admit I hadnít noticed, but she was right. The costumes were a little off. They looked late-19th century enough—vests and cutaway coats, high-necked blouses and floor-length skirts—but there was an air of make-do about the clothing. I chalked it up to time and/or budget constraints and turned my attention to more central aspects of the production, which closes the Williamstown Theatre Festivalís 2003 summer season.

It wasnít until intermission, when I read the program notes, that I discovered those dark-gray chinos were supposed to be central to the production concept. Director Gerald Freedmanís idea is that what weíre watching is a technical rehearsal by a contemporary company performing Henrik Ibsenís ďAn Enemy of the People.Ē The gimmick is apparently intended to underline its universal themes.

Well ... first of all, that conceptual notion isnít at all clear from what we see onstage. The actors are supposed to be wearing street clothes, with an added jacket or hat to get the feel for the role. But what it looks like is a full-fledged period piece costumed by a community theater.

And second, itís absolutely unnecessary to underscore this 120-year-old sociological dramaís modern relevance. Thatís the most stunning thing about it. When the protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, discovers that the water feeding the baths at the townís restorative health spa is poisonously polluted, we think immediately of PCBs and dioxin in our own cities. When the town fathers and property owners resist cleaning it up because it would mean lower profits and higher taxes, we canít help but think of lobbyists prowling the halls of modern legislatures. When the liberal press decides not to print the exposé for fear of angering influential interests, our thoughts turn unavoidably to todayís timid corporate media.

The conceptual piece that needs no program note is John Ezellís set. Itís a a wide-planked wooden platform backed by a wall of shattered windows, the glass splintering out in the shape of spiderís webs—an apt metaphor for the playís sense of claustrophobic menace.

Caught in this web of self-righteous self-interest is Dr. Stockmann, who first envisioned the spa and whose whistleblowing now threatens its future. Mandy Patinkinís performance is two parts riveting and one part puzzling. He gives us a man of fascinating complexity—a dedicated scientist and public servant who wants nothing more than to do right by his friends, his family, and his town, but who is also given to arrogance, dismissing other peopleís concerns as stupid and wrong-headed. Patinkin gives depth to Stockmann by making him an admirable fellow you canít bring yourself to like very much.

The puzzling part of the performance is how uncomfortable this established star looks onstage. He stands awkwardly, doesnít seem to know what to do with his hands, and ends up undercutting some of the power of his performance.

Making Stockmann a somewhat unsympathetic character gives more scope to the production. What could be played as simply a good man pitted against a corrupt world becomes a more complex journey for all the characters. Stockmannís brother Peter is the townís mayor and its most powerful citizen, and in Larry Pineís beautifully underplayed performance we can see not only the shrewd political manipulator but the lonely man whose only friend is power. T. Scott Cunningham, Bruce MacVittie and Peter Mahoney are convincing as the pliable newspaper editor and his two colleagues, one a radical firebrand, the other a go-along/get-along moderate.

Stockmannís wife and daughter, played effectively by Annalee Jeffries and Dana Powers Acheson, are supporting roles, in two senses. They are smart, passionate women, but in Stockmannís crusade they are almost superfluous—reduced to standing almost literally behind him in womanly support. When Stockmann muses on an heir to take over his campaign when he passes on, itís not his spirited daughter he thinks of, but one of her young brothers. Which is surprising, from the the playwright who helped spark the womenís liberation movement with ďA Dollís House.Ē

As we were leaving the theater, my friend said, ďWhy do you have to read the program to find out what the directorís intentions are?Ē Well, you shouldnít have to, and in this case, the program note rather contradicts the onstage evidence. Fortunately, what we see and hear onstage is more than sufficient evidence of a satisfying, thought-provoking evening in the theater—Dockers and all.


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