Oh the Humanity

F ake news. Groupthink. Entrenched party politics. Distrust in science. The bitter struggle between elites and everymen. 

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, now playing as a Yale Repertory production at the University Theatre, seems to be ripped straight from the headlines. If so, they were headlines during the early 1880s, when Ibsen wrote it.

We follow a gusty and grandiose scientist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, played with bottomless charisma and an endearing slur by Reg Rogers, as he tries to convince the complacent and corrupt power players of his small town to admit that the local baths, promising new springs of commerce, are actually poisonous, “stinking pesthole[s].” Least interested in this true revelation is Mayor Peter Stockmann, the staid heart of the local government and Thomas’s brother, played by a perturbed and self-contained Enrico Colantoni.

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The two brothers are the clashing center of the play. Thomas raves for individuality and action, while Peter preaches unity and stability. The schism between them occasionally dissolves into schoolyard antics, shouting and chasing one another around tables, Thomas swooping in his orange coat, his mad hair tufted up like a great horned owl, and Peter scurrying in his close-fitting, beetle-black suit.

Other notables—this small town has more than its share of delightful eccentrics—include Tyrone Henderson as a mantis-like Aslaksen, a hem-hawing small business owner so besotted with “moderation” that he makes an indulgence of it. Jarath Conroy plays the rancid old Morten Kiil, Thomas’s father in law, with a sawdust laugh and mischievous eye. Ben Anderson and Bobby Roman play Billing and Hovstad, two members of the “independent, liberal press,” as Thomas crows, who pose like reformers and speak like firebrands but are in fact just future bureaucrats in shabby trousers, playacting at free thought and impoverished bohemia.

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As for Catherine and Petra Stockmann, Thomas’s wife and daughter, actors Joey Parsons and Stephanie Machado do their best, but there’s precious little for them to work with. For a play that seems interested in dispelling the idea that, as one character says, “politics is the most important thing in life,” the world of the home is barren here. It’s strange to see the playwright who gave us the icy shock of Hedda Gabler and the electric fuss of Nora Helmer offer up a woman like Catherine Stockmann, who is relegated to the role of human dishrag, absorbing her husband’s jolts and enthusiasms with none of her own.

It may be a symptom of a bigger reason to conclude that An Enemy of the People is a minor work from a major writer: that, instead of his trademark fathomless shades, Ibsen presents a shallow pool where the one man who is plainly right tussles with the many who are plainly wrong.

But plot isn’t everything, and the cast and crew manage to elevate a whole that’s often hilarious and sinister and even at times magical, with much of that success owed to miraculous staging. Scenic designer Emona Stoykova and her team have produced a stunning set—half modern art, half turn-of-the-century comfort—that rotates throughout the play, eventually leading to the best scene of the night, which is all choreographed malice and breathtaking visuals. The staging, music and effects chime beautifully with the thesis that the enemy of the people is not a single man but the very idea of the people—some monolith of microorganisms who hold the same beliefs, read the same news and, considering themselves informed, make the same bad decisions.

At the moment, it may be Ibsen’s most topical work. Yale Rep’s production of this 135-year-old play is a potent reminder that history, especially political history, can be as stagnant as infected bathwater.

An Enemy of the People
University Theatre – 222 York St, New Haven (map)
Showtimes through October 28th
(203) 432-1234

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photographed by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the Yale Repertory Theatre.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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