If you have expectations of Henrik Ibsen, Norway, and a five-act play, put that out of your minds. Over the decades, An Enemy of the People has been adapted in many ways, perhaps none as freely as Ellen Geer’s version, now running in repertory at Theatricum Botanicum. Set in South Fork, South Carolina in the 1980s, this version has a startling prelude featuring a Klan meeting with David Duke (Connor Clark Pascale in the performance I saw) ginning up the racist crowd with white-sheeted enthusiasm as they go off to light a burning cross.
The town of South Fork has a health spa that is proving to be a windfall for the struggling community, drawing in tourists with money to spend. Tom Stockman (Christopher W. Jones), a well-liked local doctor, follows a suspicion about the water in the spa. He sends off a sample to a university lab. His suspicions are confirmed when he gets the report. The spa’s water now turns out to be grievously polluted by a witch’s brew of toxins, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. The fix of shutting down the spa and undertaking expensive renovations runs into bitter opposition. With the true heart of an ecological crusader, Stockman declares his intention of publishing the findings.
This version of the play amps-up of the expectations of the prologue by presenting the doctor as the happy husband and father of a mixed-race marriage. His formidable wife, Katherine (Earnestine Phillips), is the impressive heart of the family. The opening scenes show a vigorous bunch of children and friends, lively and enthusiastic, forward-looking folks–the Stockman school-aged children, (Joelle Lewis, Ken Ivy and Joseph Iwunze); their school-teacher daughter (Constance Jewell Lopez); a liberal newspaper editor, Horatio (Max Lawrence) and his associate Gerald (Terrence Wayne, Jr.); and the sweet, affectionate, white sea captain and beloved friend of the family, Billings (Steven C. Fisher). The plot thickens when it becomes clear that the prime polluter is Stockman’s father-in-law, Cornell (Gerald C. Rivers), whose pig farm’s waste has been running downhill for decades.
Stockman intends to publish his findings and immediately runs into fierce opposition from his sister, Mildred (Katherine Griffith), the town’s mayor, soon to be followed by virtually everyone in the town. Former friends fall away. The printer, Alan (Bill Durham in the performance I saw), is supportive at first in a wishy-washy sort of way and finally throws the doctor under the bus. Alan is also the chairman of the homeowners association, and in a town hall meeting, is the first to declare Stockman “an enemy of the people.”
The good doctor loses his job, the windows of his house are shattered, the landlord gives notice, yet the more he is ostracized, the firmer his resolve becomes. The situation is bleakly comical in its own way, and surprisingly uplifting.
An Enemy of the People is a big show boasting an ensemble of mostly vicious, racist white people who spew epithets and resort to violence in a well-choreographed, climactic melee. They are Garrett Botts, Matthew Domenico, Colin Guthrie, Ken Ivy, Joseph Iwunze, Margaret Kelly, Joelle Lewis, Matthew Pardue, Connor Clark Pascale, Jack Tavcar, Anna Telfer, Laura Wineland.
With Ellen Geer vigorously adapting the Ibsen text as well as directing along with Melora Marshall, the play resonates with the concerns of today–the ever-creeping racism poking its ugly head up on a daily basis; the degradation of our planet; the careless, heedless rule of the politically corrupt. Christopher W. Jones as Doctor Stockman delivers some steamy, righteous sermons to the cast onstage, and then proceeds off the stage and up the stairs into the audience to drive his message home. We become the choir that is preached to.
The creative team includes costume designer Beth Eslick, lighting designer Zachary Moore, sound designer Valeriya Nedviga, and prop master Sydney Russell. Elna Kordijan is the production stage manager.
An Enemy of the People runs in rotating rep at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Topanga, California, through Saturday, Sept. 28.