Henrik Ibsen's 'An Enemy of the People' remains scarily timely and timeless

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A 130-year-old play might seem creaky when considering the men are in top hats, the women are in long dresses, and there is an overall stiffer manner.

But Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, holds up just fine in director Doug Hughes' capable hands. 

If only it weren't so timely.

The play asks important questions about free speech, environmental disasters and the rich expecting the poor to suffer an undue tax burden. Considering recent events such as the BP disaster, Wall Street greed and the one percent, then none of it seems all that old.

In fact it's pretty timeless.

And scary. Unless those involved are armed, little is scarier than a mob. When people lose critical thinking abilities and just start chanting, when they repeat without thinking and close in on someone, anything can happen. And it is rarely good.

But that jumps ahead of the story.

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In this, two brothers, Peter and Thomas Stockmann -- played by Richard Thomas (Broadway's "Race," TV's "The Waltons") and Boyd Gaines (Broadway's "Gypsy," TV's "The Good Wife") -- are on diametrically opposite ends of pretty much everything.

Peter is cautious, a conformist who as mayor of his town kowtows to the rich. He does not drink. When his sister-in-law, Catherine (Kathleen McNenny, "Morning Glory"), offers him a hot toddy, his response is, "I do not partake in drinking parties."

He eats sparsely and essentially shuns pleasure. If he were in a Harry Potter book, he could be a Dementor, just sucking the joy out of people's souls. Of course, he is always certain he is right, far smarter than everyone, and talks about keeping information from people.

Thomas, a physician, is also a writer and a bon vivant, a man of earthly appetites, but mostly a seeker of the truth. He is more interested in having a great time, and is willing to gamble with his children's futures for his principles. 

The town's main source of income is a natural spa. Thomas had been suspicious for a while about the waters; too many people became too sick after bathing there. He sent water samples to a large university lab and the reports find that the water is toxic. To fix the problem, the pipes would have to be moved and the cost would be astronomical.

Thomas cannot see why the town would not want to immediately take care of this problem. In his mind, it is a no-brainer; a matter of public health, for the public good.

From Peter's perspective, this is preposterous and panicky. So what if there are lab results? Does that really prove anything? And who should pay for this? The workers would have to be taxed. And that is what he tells them, which pushes the play to a climax, with everyone shouting that Thomas is "an enemy of the people."

There were a couple of lines that felt too obviously jammed in, which is probably due to Rebecca Lenkiewicz's adaptation. 

Sure it takes place in a Norwegian coastal village in the 19th century, but really it's taking place now in America and we get to watch it on TV. Even if human nature had miraculously evolved and the topics were not completely topical, Gaines and Thomas -- backed by James Waterston ("666 Park Avenue") and John Procaccino ("Smash") -- deliver such excellent performances, this classic is worth seeing.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus
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