After performing in Raleigh, NC, on Feb. 2nd and 3rd as part of the N.C. State University Center Stage series, the Aquila Theatre Company of New York City had a flock of new fans. First, a cast of seven, most of them playing multiple roles, tickled the Triangle’s funny-bone with an exuberant and highly entertaining presentation of William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It (1603), directed by Kenn Sabberton. Next up was a trademark Aquila reinterpretation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882), adapted and staged by Aquila artistic director Peter W. Meineck. The latter drama pits brother against brother — in a modern-dress production — as wealthy businessman, civic booster, and small-town mayor Peter Stockmann (James Lavender) needs all the political muscle that he can muster to suppress a controversial water-quality report by Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Damian Davis).
After testing the water supply on which the new town health spa will rely, Dr. Stockmann reaches the potentially disastrous conclusion that the spa’s waters are so contaminated with bacteria that the spa must be shut down for a massive cleanup at an enormous cost to the spa’s owners and to the local taxpayers. This closure would, of course, be a catastrophe for the spa’s financial backers and supporters, including Mayor Stockmann, and for the segments of the struggling backwater community (pun intended) who have pinned their hopes for future prosperity on the spa’s emergence as a prime tourist attraction to draw visitors to the area.
In the early 1880s, when Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote An Enemy of the People (En folkefiende), capitalists and workers fought fierce battles over health and safety issues. So, it is no surprise that Hovstad (Owen Young), the crusading editor of the People’s Messenger, and Aslaksen (Howard Crossley), a printer who serves as spokesmen both for the local trade unions and for proprietors of small businesses such as his print shop, initially side with Dr. Stockmann against his brother Peter, who as chairman of the board for the town spa got Dr. Stockmann his current position as medical officer for the spa.
But when the mayor explains that the spa’s backers cannot shoulder all of the cleanup costs — and the taxpayers will have to pony up the difference, which will amount to millions of kroner — Aslaksen and Hovstad switch sides and start hectoring the altruistic and not-a-little egotistical Dr. Stockmann, whom a hostile crowd ultimately brands “An Enemy of the People.”
Damian Davis is terrific as the good doctor, a complicated man whose idealistic exterior hides an ego monster that gorges on the notoriety that his battle against water pollution will bring him. James Lavender suavely provides a perfect foil as the dapper Machiavellian mayor who knows better than his self-righteous brother how to win a case in the court of public opinion.
Leandra Ashton is a picture of wifely concern as Mrs. Thomas (Katrine) Stockmann; and Lauren Davis is feisty as their schoolteacher-daughter Petra whose fervent liberalism and unstinting filial support for her embattled dad put her classroom job in jeopardy. Owen Young is impassioned as the fickle local newspaper editor Hovstad, whose editorial stance proves as changeable as the Triangle weather this winter; Howard Crossley is a delight as the printer Aslaksen, who puts the economic self-interests of his fellow unionists and small businessmen first; and Lucy Black adds a nice cameo as Mortine Kiil, Dr. Stockmann’s wealthy mother-in-law, who despises the town leaders but buys spa stock with the money that she plans to leave Thomas and Katrine — under the mistaken impression that Thomas would be willing to renounce his findings — and make himself and his wife rich — rather than risk losing all of their inheritance.
By staging An Enemy of the People in modern dress and employing Scandinavian modern furniture that looks like it came out of an IKEA showroom to create the various locales called for in the script, the Aquila Theatre Company has underscored the timelessness of this splendid political drama. An Enemy of the People is not merely a showdown between greedy capitalists, indifferent to the health of the spa’s workers and their customers, and representatives of the proletariat. But it also is a ringing clash of egos.
When Dr. Thomas Stockmann ultimately insists that “the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone,” the audience has to wonder if Thomas has not rejected, out of hand, any and all compromises that might have protected his fellow citizens and out-of-town visitors. The genius of the staging of An Enemy of the People by director and adapter Peter Meineck is that those attending N.C. State University Center Stage left Stewart Theater last Wednesday night talking about the issues that An Enemy of the People raised.