‘An Enemy of the People’: Ibsen’s righteous rage and indignation updated
From left, Christopher W. Jones, Gerald C. Rivers, Joelle Lewis, Earnestine Phillips, Steven C. Fisher, Constance Jewell Lopez, Joseph Iwunze, Ken Ivy / Kim Cameron

TOPANGA, Calif.—Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s current production of An Enemy of the People is not to be confused with CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s book The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America—nor with the new Trump biography by Jonathan Swift entitled Enema of the People. Rather, WGTB’s two-acter is a version of iconoclastic Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 comedy drama, freely adapted by the Topanga amphitheater’s Artistic Director Ellen Geer.

Co-directed by Geer and Melora Marshall, this Enemy is re-set in the presumably fictitious town of South Fork, South Carolina, in 1980. By moving the time and location of Ibsen’s work from 19th-century Southern Norway a century later to the Southern USA during the presidential race between Democratic Pres. Jimmy Carter and GOP candidate Ronald Ray-gun, this WGTB iteration opens Enemy up to an exploration of issues of greater relevance for today’s theatergoers.

Given that Pres. Trump, with his dictatorial impulses, frequently derides the press as “the enemy of the people,” one might think that the title character of this 2019 adaptation would refer to a journalist. But this is not the case. The play’s protagonist, in the WGTB minted rendition, Tom Stockman (Christopher W. Jones), is the same as it was in Ibsen’s original (although he spelled “Thomas Stockmann” with two n’s). In both versions, Tom is a doctor and medical officer at a spa that features baths renowned for their supposedly healing waters.

Max Lawrence portrays Horatio (named Hovstad in the original), editor of The People’s Messenger, which in this iteration is a Black-oriented local paper. Horatio reveals himself to have mixed motives and conflicts of interest, not a hero in the Edward R. Murrow mold, speaking truth to power. He may not publish “fake news” per se, but he does deliberately print one-sided reporting, so if anything, he’s not a rebuttal to Trump’s fulminations against the media, but arguably confirmation of his allegations. Indeed, at one point in Act II, Tom’s daughter Patience (Constance Jewell Lopez) denounces Horatio for not playing a journalist’s proper role as a truth teller.

The Enemy currently on the boards opens with former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (played opening night by Connor Clark Pascale, who alternates with Matthew Pardue) addressing a “white power” rally. The “N” word is repeatedly used during this two-hour-plus show. It seemed to me that this provocative preamble is meant to take place sometime before the 1980 presidential race when the rest of the onstage action takes place. The incendiary curtain lifter sets the tone for the play, although some may cover their ears and wonder what it has to do with the rest of the show.

Enemy’s second scene occurs in the Stockmans’ comfortable household in South Fork. It is a home Tom unwittingly puts into harm’s way when he receives confirmation of an unspeakable truth he has suspected. The facts are not only contrary to the self-interest of South Fork’s elite but will also adversely impact the majority of townsfolk, at least in the short term. Initially, the doctor naively expects that not only will the good citizens of South Fork accept and proactively act upon the unpleasant truth he is revealing, but will be grateful to him for exposing the sorry state of affairs.

Watching all this unfold at the gloriously out-of-doors theater beneath the starry, starry night, I had a sense of impending doom. Poor Tom! Doesn’t he have an inkling what he’s getting himself and his family into? Sure enough, contrary to his dewy-eyed great expectations, without disclosing details I’ll just say that in stark contrast to the good doctor’s innocent assumptions, all hell breaks loose instead. He soon finds himself standing almost completely alone, as friends, family and expected allies turn against him, amidst more backstabbing and vilification than a Game of Thrones episode.

The play illustrates what I’ve long said: In America, you have freedom of speech—until the precise moment when you use your First Amendment right to advocate for an unpopular cause in public. Then you find out how free you really are in the land of the “free.”

Leading the pack of hyenas against Tom is his own older sister, Mildred (who, in Ibsen’s original, is his older brother Peter), the town’s mayor. Mildred is depicted by Katherine Griffith, whose playbill credits note that she has performed at comedy clubs; she reminded me of Maureen Stapleton as Dick Van Dyke’s hilarious, meddlesome Mama Mae Peterson in the 1963 musical movie Bye Bye Birdie. Indeed, while Enemy deals with serious subjects and thoughtful themes, there are lighthearted moments. Tom becomes so self-righteous that this latter-day would-be Jeremiah the prophet could be interpreted as, to some extent, a figure of fun Ibsen was lampooning. (And this show taught me a new word, “catawampus”—look it up.)

Christopher W. Jones, a WGTB veteran, is as tragic as he is comic. The play is well acted, with Gerald C. Rivers going hog wild, adding pig farmer to an impressive résumé that ranges from Dr. King to Captain Ahab (co-starring as the obsessive peg-legged whaler in another offering of WGTB’s current repertory season, Moby Dick—Rehearsed). As Tom’s wife Katherine, Earnestine Phillips convincingly depicts a wife torn between the ethical rectitude of her Caucasian husband who defied Southern-fried racism to dare marry an African American on the one hand, and the comfort if not outright survival of her four children on the other. Katherine must choose between the righteousness of Tom’s cause and her family’s wellbeing, a Sophie’s choice which Phillips conveys movingly.

The co-directors not only draw finely etched renderings from their cast but, as is the hallmark of plays performed at this amphitheater under the stars, make exciting use of Topanga’s sylvan glade, the hills and woods surrounding its rustic boards. Geer and Marshall direct a race riot onstage with a mise-en-scène that’s as exciting as the company’s battles in Shakespearean epics or the edge-of-your-seat Nantucket sleigh ride in Moby Dick—Rehearsed.

As for Enemy’s message, of the individual versus the masses, groupthink, and mob rule: Tom’s speechifying is a bit too longwinded in Act II, and the overzealous moralizing of his jeremiads is a tad too much. Listen, in America, people are lied to from before they’re even born. For example, the average American is bombarded with far more TV commercials (which all propagandize for capitalism) than Germans were subjected to by Nazi propaganda during Hitler’s Reich. So calling people things like “a basket of deplorables” or the kind of slights Tom hurls at the townspeople in his righteous rage will not win people over. It will turn most of them against you, even if your argument is right and you are indeed telling the truth. Wrapping oneself in morality and insulting misguided, misinformed people fed disinformation by the powers that be (that’s the real “fake news”) is much easier than trying to organize ordinary men and women, convincing them to act in their own true self-interest. To be a true friend of the people—now that’s genuinely hard work!

I often look askance at adaptations executed for mainly commercial reasons, poetic license perpetrated without the consent of dead bards who can no longer defend their work and copyright. But sometimes these updated versions work, the prime example being West Side Story’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet amidst the warring gangs of 20th-century Manhattan. And so it is with Geer’s transmogrification of Ibsen’s 1882 story, which, by landing it in 1980s Southern USA, allows American audiences to mull over pressing contemporary matters: Racism, the role of the press, nonconformity and more. Race relations, in particular, are frequently explored in WGTB productions, noted for their nontraditional casting.

An Enemy of the People is being performed in repertory through Sept. 28 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310) 455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.