Review: Saint Sebastian Players’ An Enemy of the People Depicts a Prophet Submerged in Politics

Review by Anthony Neri.

A new staging of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play An Enemy of the People has come to Chicago, directed by Jim Masini. It dramatizes a public health crisis in a small town and the resultant political tensions, making it thematically applicable to our own times. Medical officer Dr. Tomas Stockmann (Eric S. Prahl) examines the public baths and discovers an alarming level of bacteria, putting the public’s health at serious risk. Initially hesitant to unveil this for economic, political, and personal reasons (his brother is the mayor, and the baths are the town’s sole economic backbone), he makes a decisive turn to embrace a whistleblowing career, earning the acrimony of citizens and public officials.

The play demonstrates how unthinkingly people try to suppress deeply troubling truths. Most of the characters, not least among them the fiery mayor Peter Stockmann (Herb Metzler), invest their energies in this suppression. More curiously, however, the play seems to nudge us to question the limits of heartfelt and courageous conviction, represented by the doctor. 

Tomas’s initial drive—to break the official illusions of the mayor and the bath owners, who won’t bury a valuable enterprise, no matter the risk—takes a turn that may strike us as radical. In fact, he flatly condemns democracy and the “compact majority” as sources of idiocy, praising instead the wise rule of intelligent experts, of whom he is presumably an example. These tensions make the play less an exhortation of political defiance and more a complex examination of the pendulum of authority.

Russ Gager and Eric S. Prahl. Photo by Valerie Gerlock.

The performances are always engaging in director Masini's production. Metzler as Peter Stockmann more than once bursts convincingly into a red-faced tirade. Responding to him fumblingly, Prahl portrays Dr. Stockmann with a quirkiness and zeal befitting an eccentric gadfly. His proud, idealistic daughter Petra (Mara Currens) frequently seconds his stance. She has inherited her father’s regard for principle and berates the newspaper editor, Hovstad (Michael Stejskal), for being too disingenuous about their crusade; he is rather interested in siding with them for his romantic interest in Petra.

Another notable performance comes from David R. Feiler as Mr. Aslaksen. Feiler portrays an admittedly shifty news publisher, who understands the phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” He’s consequently cautious in siding with the safer party. Feiler’s hand-wringing, calculating demeanor, and slippery tongue make him a believable character submerged in moral ambiguity. Other characters, like Ejlif (Wesley Prahl), Dr. Stockmann’s young son, provide a breath of light enthusiasm to the persistent heaviness of the play, as does Captain Horster (Vito Vittore), who, less mired in politics, kindly offers room and board to the dishonored Stockmann family.

An Enemy of the People is an absorbing study of the extremes of political lethargy and reform-minded zeal. This production sparkles with a vivacious cast and boils patiently at a dramatic simmer, making for a satisfying and refreshingly open-minded drama.

Set design for the play is by Emil Zbella, with lighting by Sam Stephen and sound by Sean Smyth. Jennifer Hinojosa handled costume design. Beth Bruins is stage manager.

The Saint Sebastian Players’ An Enemy of the People continues through March 10 at St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey, with free parking at two nearby lots. Performances are on Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are available at saintsebastianplayers.org. Running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Anthony Neri is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa. He enjoys writing, watching plays and reading novels and currently works for a travel agency.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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