by Beatrice Williams-Rude
This Public Enemy—now playing at the Pearl Theatre—is not Scarface or John Dillinger; rather, it’s David Harrower’s taut, spare, to-the-point adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s searing play, An Enemy of the People. Eerily timely and shatteringly relevant, it is a must-see for the establishment. It deals with truth and the price truth-tellers pay, a concern throughout recorded history.
Dr. Stockman, a highly respected member of the community—time and place undefined—discovers that the water in the town’s baths is polluted. He’d warned the committee before building was started about the toxic waste flowing from the tannery, but there was no response and no action taken to avert the situation—building elsewhere, for example. (Does this remind anyone of the situation in Flint, Michigan?)
Unexplained illnesses lead the doctor to have the water tested at the university, which confirms that it is indeed so dangerous it should not be used either internally or externally. He expects to be hailed for his discovery. But the town’s economy is almost totally dependent upon the baths. To rebuild would take two years during which time the facilities would be closed. The tremendous expense of rebuilding would cause taxes to rise at the same time with no revenue forthcoming.
And so the big cover-up begins. That lives would be saved thanks to Dr. Stockman’s discovery is irrelevant to those whose financial interests might be affected. One by one his supporters desert him and when he refuses to retract, the honorable doctor is declared a “public enemy.” Not only is he fired from his municipal position, his outspoken daughter is dismissed from her teaching job. Even his children’s sometime-in-the-future inheritance will be forfeit because their grandfather, their mother’s father, from whom it would come, is the owner of the tannery and outraged at what Dr. Stockman has revealed. His home is attacked, the windows broken by stones.
Telling the truth has consequences, no matter that the truth-teller is performing a public service. Socrates paid with his life; Galileo was forced to recant; and John T. Scopes was put on trial for violating a Tennessee law. As to our contemporary crop of whistleblowers: Manning is serving a 40-year sentence; Snowden has been forced into exile; Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for four years; John Kiriakou was jailed and stripped of all he’d earned; and Thomas Drake, “the smartest man in the room,” is working in an Apple store, with no other employment opportunities.
Harrower astutely focuses on two of Ibsen’s core themes: the tyranny and wrong-headedness of the majority, consisting as it does of more fools than wise men; and the strength of the lone individual. “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone. I am that man. I stand alone. I am the strongest man in the world.”
The cast of Public Enemy is superb, as we’ve come to expect from The Pearl, and Hal Brooks’ direction is spot on. Jimonn Cole gives a heroic performance as Dr. Stockman, one every acting aficionado will want to see. Others in the sterling cast include Robbie Tann, as Hovstad the newspaper editor who’s seemingly committed to Dr. Stockman’s cause until he sells out; Guisseppe Jones, as the mayor and Dr. Stockman’s unsupportive brother; beguiling Arielle Goldman as the doctor’s loyal and courageous daughter; Carol Schultz (who, I’m convinced can play anything), as Horster, who goes from apparent ditz to loyal friend; Nilaja Sun as Mrs. Stockman; John Keating as Aslasken; always dependable Dominic Cuskern as Kiil; and Alex Haynes as Morten. At the October 15 matinee, Eilif was played by Isaac Josephthal.
This adaptation condenses Ibsen’s five act work into a 90-minute piece, without intermission. However, 90 minutes is too long without an intermission so it would be well either to tighten it further, or to have a break after Dr. Stockman’s explosive speech at the town hall meeting.
Public Enemy. Through November 6 at The Pearl Theatre (555 West 42nd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). www.pearltheatre.org
Photos: Russ Rowland