An Enemy of the People: An Eerie Parallel
The Little Theatre’s small and intimate stage resonated with a feeling of old Americana, reinforced by the constant hum of rustic country and folk music. As the lights dimmed, a story of corruption, idealism and sacrifice took center stage.
“An Enemy of the People” is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s original 1882 play, which follows a health scandal that encompasses an entire town. Ominously, director Jane Page’s adaptation is set in Southwest Colorado, and uses the original storyline, where a scientist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, discovers that the town’s famous spas are infested with hazardous bacteria.
Initially praised for his discovery of the public health issue, he quickly becomes vilified as the town realizes what his discoveries will do. Their spa tourist economy will die overnight, taxes will be raised to cover reconstruction and repairs, and people will lose their jobs. Sound familiar? The play’s focus on the gladiatorial clash between Dr. Stockmann (Nick Manfredi) and the mayor, Dr. Stockmann’s sister Betta (Jennifer Holcombe), brings a new meaning to sibling rivalry, and transforms Dr. Stockmann’s idealism into a dark, pessimistic reality.
Thusly, we are drawn to a number of equally hard questions. What matters most to the town’s livelihood? The economy? The health of the tourists? The mayor’s reputation? The scientist’s ideals? The play explores what can essentially be described as a fall from grace, as Dr. Stockmann’s original plan to clean up the water evolves into a complete disavowal of politics, his sister and his taking up of a revolutionary cause. Only his family retains their loyalty and trust in Dr. Stockmann, and that comes at a price. On the other side of the spectrum, the town’s refusal to react is portrayed through the ugliness of egotism and political rhetoric, sheer economic devastation, and the tyranny of the majority. No one really emerges as a victor, and everyone’s idea of the truth has been corrupted. Surprisingly, the voice of reason emerges from Aslaksen (Emily Daly), a comic relief who constantly preaches “restraint and moderation”, only to abandon that ideal as pressure mounts.
All of this would be naught without the strong performances of the actors, of which Manfredi’s Dr. Stockmann is a standout, an emotional performance as a man that goes from hero to zero. Brilliant too, is Holcombe, whose role as Mayor Stockmann is amplified by the sheer disdain and frustration she exudes upon the cast. The rest of the actors embrace their roles, from the loyal wife to the angry citizens, all further amplifying the inherent anger of the play. This also, is supported by the minimal set, with just enough furniture to imagine the scene, without too much to distract from the performance.
If there is anything more pertinent about Page’s adaptation, it is the stark relevance to modern issues. The corruption in politics, the revolutionary who holds nothing sacred, the man of principle and perhaps most relatable, the cover up of a health scandal. There is a direct allusion to the Gold King Mine wastewater spill in Silverton, Colorado, and an indirect connection to Flint, Michigan, both sharing the story of contaminated water as a result of infrastructural problems. Even the citizen that isn’t active in politics and the power of the old guard make timely appearances in the production.
Throughout the play, the recurring motif of the title, “An Enemy of the People”, frequently reiterates the central question of the play. Is one man’s belief more important than the mass? Or is the majority more important than a single man? I have trouble answering that question myself. What we are left with is a single notion from Dr. Stockmann: “The strongest man is always alone.”