Public Health and Safety vs. Greed…

San Francisco Free Civic Theatre presents an incredibly relevant play for the times.  Last weekend, I took a drive up to S.F. to watch my first actual Ibsen play.  I’ve read his plays before, but this was one that I hadn’t heard of:  An Enemy of the People.

HENRIK IBSEN (1828-1906) was born into prosperity in the Norwegian village of Skien but sadly that fortune didn’t last long.  He was a very intelligent man who was a cynic and an atheist.  His plays are dark and often force the audience to really look at the ugly underbelly of humanity.  He believed that in order to fix all the dark parts of human nature, a light should must be shone into those deep recesses that dwell within man.  Like most, his first plays weren’t well received.  He traveled to Rome, and it was there where he began to make a name for himself.  It seems as though all of his plays are a form of protest. This particular play happens to be corporate greed and hypocrisy versus public health.  Considering the Health Care Bill that got signed into law, there couldn’t be a more perfect time to present this masterpiece.

The play consists of three acts separated by two intermissions.  When I saw this in the program, I wondered what the running time of the show would be.  As it turns out, it’s just ten minutes over the two hour mark with the intermissions included.  What was more shocking to me than that, was that it never felt like the show was 130 minutes.  I have been to movies and performances (and have been in some of them) where it feels like time is dragging.

The plot of the play is that the town has built a new spa and is looking forward to the tourist boom that will accompany it.  The hero and villain, it totally depends on which side you agree with, are a pair of brothers.  One is a scientist (Thomas Stockmann)and the other (Peter Stockmann) is the mayor of the town.  The scientist discovers that the water is full of harmful bacteria which caused several cases of illness during the first few months that the spa was open.  He gets confirmation of this and when he presents his findings to his brother, the debate begins.  The board of directors of the spa built it downstream of a cannery (which belongs to the father of Thomas’ wife) even though Thomas had recommended that it wasn’t the ideal spot.  When Thomas discovers the bacteria, he begins a campaign to have the spa rebuilt on the previously recommended site and an overhaul of the town’s water delivery system.  Peter sees things differently. As a mayor, he is more concerned about the money and time the whole project will take and the toll it will take on town.  Even though the overhaul would benefit the entire town and the tourists that would visit the spa, they would have to wait not only for two years before the spa and the water system would be completed but also for the revenue and tourists from the spa.  When Thomas gets word that Peter will not move the spa he decides to take the matter to the people, who would be outraged at this news.  His friends at the local independent newspaper, The People’s Daily Messenger, offer to write his story so that the public knows about the spa and the Board’s decision on the matter. The publisher, Aslaksen, ensures Thomas that the people will be behind him 100% and offers to help as much as he can “in moderation”.   To counter his brother, Peter makes it known to the editors and Aslaksen that should the project be approved, he will enforce a tax on the public that many people cannot afford thus ensuring that Thomas’s attempt at a public outcry for change be effectively stifled.

Robert Cooper (Peter)  and Eric Nelson (Thomas), do a great job making this classic text feel as though it were written recently.  While the dialogue was snappy, it was accompanied by some weak movements while they would be standing face to face.  At one point, while having an argument, Thomas was making a case in which he has a solidly valid point and yet he physically takes an awkward stumble back.  When you see this kind of argument in person, the debater with the point doesn’t back up in this situation.  There are two movement that I have seen happen, s/he either a.) holds their ground or b.) moves in “for the kill”.   That backward step negates the power of the point that he is making.  However, both men give supreme performances.

The women in the play also play up the duality of an issue in their own right.  Thomas’ wife, played by Gabrielle Mortarjemi, served as the school of thought that women are the homemakers and caregivers of the family and that is the main function they serve.  Thomas’ daughter, Petra as portrayed by Corinne Oprinovich, played Mrs. Stockmann’s opposite.  Petra had opinions and wasn’t ashamed or afraid to make them known.  Both women complimented their respective roles perfectly in both voice and movement.  Mrs. Stockmann moves fluidly, while Petra tended to move in sharp short movements.  Mrs. Stockmann never seemed to want to make any waves o interrupt their way of living. Petra, on the other hand, takes after her father and even offered  help during a “town meeting” citing the appropriate methods to call in order for Thomas to have a chance to speak.  While it would be socially unseemly for a woman to have knowledge or even attend an affair of this issue, Petra walks in stoically while her mother keeps her eyes low and head slightly bowed.

As the Messenger’s fidgety and ever careful publisher, Aslaksen, Mark Romyn was my favorite actor on that stage.  In addition to great line delivery and movement, his character seemed to be so complete that I had a hard time figuring out if the shaky hand movement that he had on stage was a nervous habit, or if it was something that he did off stage as well. Aslaksen punctuated every promise of action with “moderation” throughout the show that by the end Act II it was something of a joke, which he delivered with perfection every time.

Most of the other characters were performed well.  However, having not read the script myself, I say this emphasizing the fact that this is merely my opinion, but there is a character, the junior editor of the Messenger, who needn’t be introduced into the play until Act 2.  The most memorable thing that he did in the opening scene was to call every person on stage a great man, or a great woman.  Of course, I exaggerate this by saying every person, but the character says this three or four times in the course of 10 minutes.  There didn’t seem to be any believability behind it.  So to me it just seemed like he was randomly yelling that phrase which by happenstance coincided with a line that the “great” person just finished.  “A great man!”

Aside from the junior editor in the first scene, this play had so many great attributes that I feel it would truly be a shame if it were missed.  It’s obviously well written, but it has some of the most wonderful lines scattered throughout.  One of my favorites was “Without power, what good is truth?” Thomas questions as he is given word that the people will not be giving their support to him.  Also, in Act II Scene II, Thomas has a great speech in which he tells the public that “the people are never right…at first…Were they right when they crucified Jesus…?” In addition to it being a great show, there’s even an amazing deal: The tickets are FREE!  There’s still one more weekend left to see it.  Click on the link at the beginning of this review or click on the Calendar of Events in my blog roll and you can see the dates and times that you can catch this show.