A Town Without Pity

On the surface, Arthur Miller's 1950 adaption of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 An Enemy of the People seems theatrical proof of the French adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Set in a nineteenth-century Norwegian town, the drama's subject matter mirrors headlines in the 1990s: poisoned natural resources; politicians concerned with image instead of the public's well-being; newspaper editorial policy driven by circulation rather than ethics. The drama's theme -- the idealist in conflict with the values of his society -- reflects current struggles: the artist against cuts in public funding; the academic against pressure to be politically correct; the individual against depersonalizing technology. Presumably director Michael Hall had such parallels in mind when he decided to stage Enemy as the season opener at Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre Company. The production boasts a strong cast and a splendid set. Yet because Hall directs it as a serious drama without exploiting its satiric possibilities, the play comes across as being hopelessly didactic and dated.

Often called the father of modern theater, playwright Ibsen broke ground with his realistic depictions of social issues such as women's rights and venereal disease. Rooted in ideas, set in recognizable middle-class environments, and using everyday language, his work anticipated twentieth-century sensibilities by focusing more on character psychology than on plot. Having influenced playwrights such as August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw, and John Osborne, Ibsen's dramas -- at least some of them -- still play well on the modern stage. In particular, A Doll's House, which explores the consequences of a woman's dependence upon her husband, seems fresh when given an intelligent revival. An Enemy of the People does not fare as well.

In Enemy, a provincial coastal town depends upon the therapeutic waters at Kirsten Springs, a local spa, for its livelihood. When the town's doctor, Thomas Stockmann (Chris Clavelli), learns that the springs are contaminated, he assumes the townspeople will laud him for his discovery. Instead the town turns against him, with hisbrother, Mayor Peter Stockmann (John Gardiner), leading the charge. Even the town's liberal newspaper A whose publisher Aslaksen (John Felix), editor Hovstad (Joe Warik), and reporter Billing (Tom Wahl) initially support the doctor's findings A withdraws its backing when its financial future is threatened. As corruption and cynicism engulf the town, the doctor remains the only man who cannot be bought. Defiantly, he asserts himself as the purveyor of truth, no matter how lonely and alienated that position leaves him.

What dates An Enemy of the People is its late-nineteenth-century revolutionary fervor, a railing against the rigid social hierarchy that dominated the era's European countries, most of which were still under the grip of a monarchy. If expressed by fully drawn characters, such fervor would translate to our more democratic era, since we still struggle as citizens against political powers that determine the quality of our lives. But Ibsen didn't create enduring individuals in Enemy as he did in A Doll's House with Nora or in Ghosts with Mrs. Alving and her son Osvald. Instead the playwright uses Enemy to rant and rave against what he perceived as a personal injustice.

The year before Enemy was written, Ibsen premiered Ghosts, the most controversial play in his oeuvre. Using venereal disease as a symbol of family guilt and society's depravity, this precedent-setting realist drama drew the wrath of the public and the press. Ibsen wrote Enemy in response to that backlash, creating Dr. Stockmann, the visionary loner pitted against the ignorant mob, as a stand-in for himself. Unfortunately, the playwright's use of stock characters, moral posturing, and speeches that sound like tongue lashings against the audience renders the play a polemic instead of a work of art.

Playwright Arthur Miller (whose Death of the Salesman provides a classic example of American realism) saw a correlation between Dr. Stockmann's case against society and the moral dilemmas facing the world in 1950, including the McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Senate and the fallout from World War II and the Holocaust. In the preface to his adaption, Miller writes that Ibsen was a master at using the stage for "the most intense discussion of man's fate." The theme of An Enemy of the People, Miller noted, is "valid today, just as it will always be," although Miller admits that "some of the examples given by Ibsen to prove it may no longer be [valid]." Thus Miller justifies restructuring the drama, trimming it from five acts to three, purging unnecessary exposition and transitions, and deleting speeches that reveal Dr. Stockmann -- and, in turn, Ibsen -- as a tad overzealous about superior humans who have a natural right to lead the masses. "There's a terrible gap between the thoroughbreds and the mongrels in humanity," Stockmann says in sbermenschspeak in the original version; later in the same scene he declares that the common people do not have the same right to "admonish and approve, to prescribe and to govern as the few spiritually accomplished personalities." Although Miller guts Ibsen's text of most of its fascistic overtones and makes the play infinitely more accessible, the revised Enemy still preaches.

Ibsen incorporates contradictions into Dr. Stockmann's character in an effort to create a hero instead of a cardboard truth-teller. Such efforts don't pay off. Stockmann's mixture of arrogance and naivete in anticipating the town's worship of him makes him irritating from the start, making it difficult to relate to his noble efforts to stand up for the truth. Chris Clavelli's giddy, almost desperate performance as Stockmann, complete with mannerisms such as staggering and taking eyeglasses on and off in a stagy way, does little to evoke sympathy for the already annoying doctor. The character might be interesting if he were interpreted, with postmodern irony, as a comic megalomaniac who takes himself too seriously, rather than as a misunderstood victim. But that would have required Hall to reconceive his entire directorial slant, drawing out the absurdist flavor that peppers both the original and the adaption, instead of playing the drama straight.

John Gardiner has great fun with the anal Peter Stockmann, the play's indisputable villain, allowing us to hate the character with relish. And as Catherine, the doctor's wife, the versatile Pat Nesbit conveys both impatience with her husband's idealism, which threatens to pitch her and her children back into the poverty they once knew, and loyalty to his ideals -- she stands by him throughout his tribulations. Suzanne O'Donnell proves equally adept at portraying the couple's daughter Petra, an idealist-in-training. Max Gulack and John Felix inject humor into the otherwise self-conscious proceedings, with Gulack playing Catherine's doddering yet sly stepfather Morten Kiil, and Felix as the noncommittal bureaucrat publisher Aslaksen.

An enchanted set and subtle lighting design promise magic that the production never delivers. Scenic designer Tim Bennett graces the back half of the stage with moss-covered mounds dotted with birch trees, while the changing hues behind this forest, provided by lighting designer Thomas Salzman, reflect both the time of day and the emotional mood of each scene. Yet Hall almost never moves the players through the forest. And he allows the set to function as mere backdrop, pushing the drama's action forward so it takes place virtually in a straight line across the front of the stage, with the actors rarely even varying the side from which they enter and exit.

Hall's literal approach to the staging of An Enemy of the People hardly comes as a surprise considering Ibsen's reputation as the Big Daddy of realist theater. Given Hall's skill as a director, demonstrated through innumerable Caldwell productions over the years, such an approach would prove more than adequate with an Ibsen play in which the language, situations, and characters still have the power to move us. In a drama that hasn't aged well, however, an innovative spin might have made the work more palatable to contemporary theatergoers.

Stage Notes
South Florida's theater community honored its own on Monday, October 30, during the twentieth annual Carbonell Awards ceremonies. The smoothly produced event, at Jan McArt's Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in Boca Raton, booked right along, with dinner, live entertainment, acceptance speeches, and the requisite patter from presenters, all of which wrapped up at the civilized hour of 10:00 p.m. Winners and other guests who couldn't get enough of each other had plenty of schmooze time over drinks in the Royal Palm's garden afterward.

The show-business-spoof musical Ruthless ran away with four awards, including Best Production of a Musical, Best Director of a Musical (Joel Paley), Best Musical Direction (Nick Venden), and Best Actress in a Musical (Margot Moreland). Louis Tyrrell of the Pope Theatre Company, honored as Best Director of a Play for Dark Rapture, also received this year's George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. The recently founded New World Rep Company, in its first season, garnered two awards: Best Production of a Play (Faith Healer) and Best Actress in a Play (Cynthia Caquelin, in the same production). Walter Zukovski snared the Best Actor in a Play award for Neil's Garden, which also won Best New Work.

Other winners included Peter Morgan Patrick for Best Supporting Actor in New Theatre's Sight Unseen; Pat Nesbit for Best Supporting Actress in the Caldwell Theatre Company's The Price; Tony Walton for Best Scenic Design (Men's Lives), and Suzanne M. Jones for Best Lighting Design (Dark Rapture), both at the Pope.


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