The Dueling Critics Spar Over 'An Enemy of the People' | WBEZ
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The Dueling Critics Spar Over 'An Enemy of the People' at Stage Left


JONATHAN: "An Enemy of the People" is the famous play by Henrik Ibsen which proves that water is thicker than blood, pitting brother against brother over a new health spa and a town's future. One brother is mayor and also chairman of the private health spa consortium. The other brother is a doctor and the spa's health officer. All hell breaks loose when Brother Doctor discovers the spa water supply is poisonously polluted, and Brother Mayor attempts to quash and discredit the findings. The Stage Left production uses Arthur Miller's faithful adaptation of Ibsen's play, which director Jason Fleece sets it in the late 1950's.

KELLY: As usual, Jonathan has told you everything about the plot without telling you anything about the play. "An Enemy of the People" is a study of the costs of standing up for the truth when it's more convenient for everyone around you to continue to believe in lies--or, in other words, a history of American liberalism. Miller adapted the play at the height of the McCarthy era, during which the people who prospered were the ones who went along with anti-Communist hysteria while those who refused to go along lost their reputations and their livelihoods.

Kelly, no matter how you insult me it won't keep "An Enemy of the People" from being a clunker. Ibsen may be many things, but a writer of sparkling dialogue and subtle plot mechanics he ain't. And Arthur Miller's adaptation does nothing at all to reverse the Clunkorexia Ibseniana. We go to Ibsen (and he's gone-to a LOT) for his forceful and still-modern ideas on social, political, economic and moral issues. But he REALLY loads the dice against his crusading hero, Dr. Thomas Stockman, who's as rash as he is right. FYI: Miller wrote a much better play about the costs of standing up for the truth, "The Crucible."

KELLY: I'm stunned that you found the combination of Ibsen and Miller clunk-some; I found it inspiring. (And yes, "The Crucible" is a better play. "King Lear" is better than "Much Ado" but that doesn't keep the latter from being worth doing.) Certainly, every single person in the play turns against our hero, and certainly he does his part to encourage that by being a self-righteous jerk. But I found both his self-righteousness (and its satisfying collapse) and his opponents' cravenness believable. More important, I thought the straightforwardness of the text and production enabled the audience to get the contemporary references (what could be more contemporary than "The water is poison!"?) without having to be--well, clunked on the head with it.

Kelly, you miss the point: I still love, admire and respect both Ibsen and Miller, but I no longer want to sleep with their plays. One CAN be enthusiastic about Wagner's music and still recognize that he was a despicable human being. It does theater no good to accept a play as great ONLY because it tells the truth and/or raises important issues. As is the case with virtually all of Ibsen's so-called "problem plays," the heavy lifting of making them palatable to contemporary audiences must be done by the theater company producing them. Remember, even the most serious and earnest of productions of "A Doll House" usually gets laughs nowadays because it's sooooo 19th Century. So, what's your take on the Stage Left production, Kelly? Not that you'll be right.

KELLY: Except for a few glitches where moving the set noticeably delayed the following scene, I enjoyed the production thoroughly. It's a piece written for men, with women only glanced at in passing (I expect better from Ibsen and Miller, but what can you do?), and both William Watt as the hero and Cory Krebsbach as his brother-villain handle their parts with flair. I also especially enjoyed the comic turn by James Eldrenkamp as the townsman urging moderation in all things--even virtue. You may think the laughs evoked by this production, or productions of "A Doll House" for that matter, are the result of their being dated or over-forceful--I think they're appropriate mining of the humor that neither Miller nor Ibsen ever neglected.

JONATHAN: Yeah, famous jokesters both. OK, Kelly, Perfesser Abarbanel gives you 50%. I agree that the women in this play are sadly underwritten and that this is one for the boys. I liked William Watt, too, a big teddybear of a man whose passion and enthusiasm are contagious. Cory Krebsbach, while far more restrained, provided workable counterpoint. The rest of the company were a mixed bag (as we said in the Sixties), ranging from satisfactory to pretty bad. I rather liked the Danish Modern scenic design, what the Beatles sang of as "Norwegian Wood." It's still clean, warm and appealing as created by scenic designer Alan Donahue. My bottom line: see it so you can say you've seen it, and then hope some enterprising author will come up with a more subtle and effective contemporary take on "An Enemy of the People."

Oh, doubtless some random contemporary author will prove more capable than Arthur Miller at plays about political morality. NOT (as we said in the zeroes). See it because it's stirring and engaging. If this be melodrama, make the most of it!

"An Enemy of the People", produced by Stage Left Theatre, continues through April 3 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont in the Lakeview neighborhood.


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