Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: The cast of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Bec Willett
Henrik Ibsen’s AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE was penned in ardent response to the public’s distaste of his play GHOSTS. With more than a few perspectives shared with the playwright, the play’s protagonist Thomas Stockman (Phillip Earl Johnson) is an idealist in the pursuit of truth, the belief that people will find scientific fact irrefutable a sentiment he ruminates on more than once. When Stockman finds that the primary source of his town’s income – the spas – are being poisoned by leaks from local tanneries, he sets forth on a heroic mission to right the wrong by revealing the truth to the town. He is deterred, however, by his brother Peter (Scott Jaeck), the mayor, who, through political machinations involving the town’s newspaper, manages to convince the people that Stockman is not selling them the whole truth but rather one version of it. Fake news, if you will. With potent language and an almost Brechtian symbolism strongly echoing current leaders, the parallels are compelling. What are not compelling however, are the performances.
It’s surprising given the vast experience on stage that many of the actors fall into novice traps, especially in frequent, unearned moments of yelling and excessive pointing. Perhaps it’s a symptom of their hamstrung desire to affect each other, because while the performances are individually full of passion, there’s little connection between this ensemble. Even with such an intellectually engaging and relevant text, without this humanity of relationship, it’s difficult to find a way in.
There’s no doubt that the production is beautiful. The designers – especially scenic designer Todd Rosenthal and costume designer Ana Kuzmanic – have taken advantage of their large budgets to present masterful explorations of line, color, tone and texture, presenting a gallery of stage pictures reminiscent of modern art. Yet, even with all that beauty, the audience experience is at times lost in favor of ideas – particularly within the costume design. Myself and more than a few other audience members spent a great deal of time wondering about the intended time period of the piece, and whether or not the costumes were meant to communicate that. Seeming to pull from the fabrics and silhouettes of the 1880s, 1930s, 1940s, 1970s and everywhere in between, it was difficult to determine the meaning behind the choice, if indeed any was intended for us.
In his note, director Robert Falls states that Ibsen felt “stung and superior” after the rejection of GHOSTS, and nowhere was this more evident in this play than in Act 3. This town hall scene consists almost entirely of Stockman unleashing a tirade at the common people about their mass stupidity and self-sabotage. I believe that, as a well-off, liberal audience, we were supposed to identify with the educated, impassioned, and scientific Stockman, perceiving him as the disenfranchised speaker of truth – to what is seemingly supposed to be the mob of the ‘fly over states.’ Yet, despite knowing that in the context of the play his information was the truth, I still found it difficult to side with him. It’s hard to look beyond a petulant white man throwing a temper tantrum from a place of privilege – a display that if it had come from anyone else would never have been awarded a podium, let alone the benefit of the sound space of an entire act to voice it in.
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE is a play of potent and polarizing ideas. While this production was beautifully designed, without the empathy provided by relationship and the opportunity for identification, it makes for an intellectual exercise rather than a life-changing one.
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE runs through April 15th. For more information goodmantheatre.org.