We like to think we know what the truth means. It holds an absolute, immutable value that’s unshakable in the face of ignorance. Or at least, that’s what’s seemingly presented in “An Enemy of the People”, which opened on September 24 at Tarragon Theatre, the first play of the 2014/2015 season. Written by Henrik Ibsen and directed by Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose (adapted by Florian Borchmeyer, translated into English by Maria Miliasavljevic), the 105-minute play questions what it means for truth to really exist.
The plot is fairly straightforward, although its fallout isn’t: Dr. Stockmann (Joe Cobden) has been secretly testing the town’s bath’s water supply for months, with the results concluding it’s full of contaminated matter. Muddying things right off the bat is his brother, Peter (Rick Roberts), who campaigned on building the baths and made a grievous error in the placement of the water filtration system, a mistake that would cost upwards of $60 million to rectify. But that’s a minor thorn in Stockmann’s side, as he has the media on his side, with journalist Billing (Brandon McGibbon), editor-in-chief Hovstad (Matthew Edison) and publisher Aslaksen (Tom Barnett) promising their support.
To use Oscar Wilde’s words, the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and it’s not long before lines are sharply drawn in the sand and the players ante up on their hands. And while it’s not exactly surprising, nor completely unexpected, it is interesting to observe how the characters shift in their opinions. Stockmann’s wife, Katharina, (Tamara Podemski), vacillates between encouraging her husband to do the right thing and ensuring the comfort of their family, while the newspaper folks — understandably invested in the interests of the majority — present options that may not be so unpalatable after all.
But the real winner to watch in “An Enemy of the People”, and one who doesn’t reveal himself until the end, is Stockmann’s father-in-law, Morten Kiil (Richard McMillan). He displays the keenest understanding of all the other characters, showing he knows them better than they even know themselves. McMillan does a fine job, too, of walking the fine line between sleazy snake oil salesman and serpentine manipulator, stalking the stage like an uncomfortable conscience to everyone. And when he hisses “ch-ch-ch-change”, it’s applicable to one and all.
The rest of the cast pull their weight nicely in complement, with their roles — especially Stockmann, Peter and Aslaksen — being noticeably larger. Cobden, soft-spoken but never subservient, shows a fairly ferocious side when unequivocally standing up for his beliefs, although he does come off as a bit one-sided at times. We get that he’s ardent in his passions, but it takes his interplay with Peter to add depth. For his part, Roberts is a pleasure to watch, a Jon Slattery-type with charm that’s turned on only in the public.
Podemski as Katharina is a bit harder to figure out. She’s the somewhat unfortunate bystander to her husband’s convictions, a weary soul who has to balance her commitments to Stockmann and their baby. Unfortunately, her presence doesn’t always slam through as it should, whether subtly or like a force of nature, but this can also be a criticism against Ibsen for not writing a stronger role. In Rose’s “An Enemy of the People”, Podemski has a chance to redeem herself through music, showcasing a voice that’s in tune and soothing (the music choices in this play, while a bit overt, are a neat addition: David Bowie’s “Changes”, Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor”, among others).
McGibbon as Billing and Edison as Hovstad are, for the most part, good but never consistently great. Hovstad is the editor-in-chief of the town paper (or rag, depending on whose side you support), but Edison never quite shows the shrewdness necessary to rise to such a position of power. “It’s our politics that’s contaminated,” he tells Starkmann, and we believe his personality until he does a mealy-mouthed about-face. It’s not that the shift isn’t believable, but that Edison doesn’t quite convince us he has the dirty goods within him.
Billing, on the other hand, comes off more like a never-grown-up rocker/slacker in plaid than someone who arranges words to form stories. At the beginning of the play, we see him and Edison playing in a small, homey band, and it’s a more apt representation than the rest of the play. Note: the rendition of “Survivor” is killer in its adaption.
What also works splendidly well is Michelle Tracy’s set design of three chalkboard walls with various scribbles on it, mutating as the play goes on. Its minimalist design both allows it to stay in the background and yet represent change when change is necessary. Thomas Ryder Payne with the sound design is also to be commended for his work, using pop culture songs and other sound cues to give “An Enemy of the People” both topical and timeless anchoring.
When I was talking to an attendee outside, we both agreed that “An Enemy of the People” is one of the most thought-provoking plays Tarragon has put on. It inspires conversation, reflection and debate, and that’s one of the positives that truth effects. If there is such a thing in our society as a truth that can withstand the forces of time, then it can also withstand the barrage of support and criticism. The only question is, does such a truth exist?
Rose, McMillan and Cobden do an admirable job in presenting both sides of the argument, and it certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the Tarragon season.
“An Enemy of the People” runs through October 26 at Tarragon Theatre in the Mainspace. For more information and tickets, visit the Tarragon website.