An Enemy of the People Is a Well-Dressed Meditation on Politics and Human Nature

Philip Earl Johnson (Thomas Stockmann) and Scott Jaeck (Peter Stockmann) play a town doctor and mayor who can’t get along.

When I described the synopsis of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People to my date, he groaned. Politics, environmental crisis, public figures and large companies taking advantage of the little guy…

It’s not hard to imagine why director Robert Falls felt an adaptation of Ibsen’s 1882 drama would feel particularly relevant right now. (And he’s not the only one. See our review of Traitor Red Orchid’s Ibsen adaptation from last fall.) Remember in February 2017, when Donald Trump called the media an “enemy of the American people” via Twitter? Yeah who would, that was thousands of outrageous tweets ago.  

I braced myself entering the Goodman Theatre, but I was relieved to find true restraint exhibited in the rewrite of the script. The few obvious allusions to current events elicited a round of laughter from an audience undoubtedly overfed on political news. Thankfully this adaptation resists skewering Trump, but instead opens Ibsen’s work, a criticism of capitalist-driven politics and the reactionary majority, to more cogent themes. Ultimately Falls’ adaptation seems to hold a mirror to its assumed-progressive audience, pointing out the pitfalls of hubris and the difference between stewardship and egotism.   

The plot centers around Dr. Thomas Stockman (played well by an energetic Philip Earl Johnson), and his discovery of contaminants in the town water supply. When he approaches his brother, the town mayor, played with steely authority by Scott Jaeck, he’s met with opposition and threats. Lines are drawn and an all-out war for the public opinion of the town ensues. Todd Rosenthal’s set design adapts impressively to foster tense arguments between brothers incapable of listening to each other, a left-wing newspaper office, and a wonderfully staged town meeting wherein the audience is lumped with the reactionary townees.  

Rebecca Hurd plays a smartly dressed Petra.

It’s a personal credit of mine that I waited this far into the review to bring up the costumes. The actors in this play seem to physically wear their characters. Our radical socialist newspaper man (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez) is dressed in red pants. Our conservative mayor wears head to toe layers of violet purple, like publicly elected royalty. Rebecca Hurd plays the whipsmart and fierce doctor’s daughter Petra, who jaunts off to work long days in wide-leg trousers and well tailored waist-jackets. Ibsen’s characters fit this sort of flat role—the moderate, the conservative, the radical, the crotchety old man, etc. Costume designer Ana Kuzmanic portrays this in lush monochromatic ensembles.

Lanise Antoine Shelley and Philip Earl Johnson (Katherine and Thomas Stockman) stand in their nightclothes. Green velvet slippers not pictured.

Katherine Stockman, the doctor’s wife, appears in hyper-feminine, Victorian-inspired dresses. Falls has given her more focus in this production. She is pregnant, vulnerable and engulfed in magenta in one scene. She also seems to be the only character with the ability to see multiple perspectives, and communicate with those she disagrees with. Lanise Antoine Shelley plays Katherine adeptly. She stands in contrast to her husband: she’s level-headed, and carrying hope for the community’s future.

A pregnant Katherine Stockman stands in a brilliant two-piece ensemble.

If you’re looking for a thoughtful meditation on partisanship and identity politics, this production may be for you. If you’re simply in the mood to see some killer shoes and matching hats, you should definitely see this show. 

An Enemy of the People runs at the Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn St.) every day of the week except for Mondays, until April 15. The show runs around 2 hours and 20 minutes with a brief intermission. Tickets ranging in price from $35 to $80 are available for purchase here.

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