“Truth shifts!” insists Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines) to his fellow townspeople in the pivotal scene of An Enemy of the People. Some truths, however, remain essentially stable. How else to explain the peculiar phenomenon that the most trenchant and urgently relevant political drama in New York City right now was written in Norway in 1882? The issues at the heart of Henrik Ibsen’s great play are depressingly timely today: a greedy corporation attempts to bury evidence of industrial pollution (in this case, toxic waste at a health resort); the local government and the ostensibly liberal media are eager to play along; the citizens, benighted by financial panic, believe whatever will be easiest on their purses; and the lone voice of principled dissent, Stockmann, is smeared and despised as a danger to the community.
Yet while modern anticorporate rhetoric has a strong populist streak (e.g., the 99 percent), Stockmann is an intemperate elitist who treats the will of the majority with angry contempt. This dynamic comes to the fore in Doug Hughes’s complex and richly acted production at Manhattan Theatre Club. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s fleet, pointed adaptation—whose language, presumably by intent, can be jarringly anachronistic—magnifies Stockmann’s self-belief into something closer to egomania; the masterful Gaines, at first boyish and cavalier, hardens into a Coriolanus-like pillar of rectitude, willing to defend his inconvenient position at any cost.
Stockmann’s pride and tactlessness provide ammunition to a growing list of opponents: his stuffy brother, who is the town’s mayor (a waxy Richard Thomas); his ruthless father-in-law (a wonderfully wormy Michael Siberry); the lecherous newspaper editor (John Procaccino); and his cagey printer (Gerry Bamman). But as this production makes clear, the doctor’s conviction cuts him off even from those who stand with him, such as his worried wife (Kathleen McNenny) and daughter (Maïté Alina). Like its spiritual grandchild The Normal Heart, Ibsen’s drama scores hard points against real social ills while also suggesting that a passionate crusader, frozen in the spotlight of his truth, can sometimes be his own worst enemy.—Adam Feldman
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