What makes a classic work a classic? Is it just that it’s old and written a long time ago? Or is it because its message is timeless? The latter certainly is the case with An Enemy of the People by Ibsen. Wheelhouse Theater Company does a great job dusting off this play, and showing that it still packs a punch today.
What happens when morals and integrity threatens economic life? We have certainly seen these to opposing forces contend with each other throughout history. And unfortunately, for the Stockman family it drives a wedge between two brothers that is irreparable. Thomas Stockman, a revered doctor in this town, has made an awful discovery about the water used for the baths that attract people from all over the country to visit. Unfortunately, the water and piping is poisonous and deadly for all those who come in contact with it. He believes that this is a “no-brainer” and his brother, Peter, who just happens to the mayor of the town, will have this situation taken care of at once by replacing the pipes and purifying the water. But Peter, who walks a fine line between authority and abusing his position of power, reveals that it is not so simple. It would cost a lot to repair the pipes and would take a lot of time. These factors would upset the big-wigs of this town who would stand to lose money during that time. Peter wants his brother to sweep it under the rug and pretend that the poison isn’t there. However, Thomas knows that silence would equal death for a lot of people and therefore, refuses to stay silent about his discovery and insists that his brother does the “right ” thing. Sadly, his decision comes with a heavy price for him and his family. Things keep escalating until the crucible is reached and then everything explodes.
The cast does an applause worthy job of getting at the heart of this drama. Michael Schantz and David kenner battle well as the two brothers. It feels like you are at a boxing match watching two heavyweights duke it out for the title. And they hit hard. The audience is on the edge of their seats watching these two give everything they can muster up in this winner-takes-all war.
Director Jeff Wise makes very clever use of his cast. Interestingly, they never leave the stage until the very end and provide help to each other by being jacket repositories, prop handlers, et al. Like a true ensemble, they sit at the same time. Yet, cleverly, Wise never lets his stylistic touches interfere with the story being told. In fact, having everyone on stage all the time adds fuel to the fire and keeps the play going seamlessly. We don’t get to catch our breath until the last second- which is a good thing.
As I asked what makes a classic earn that honor of being called such? Whatever it is, this play has it and this cast serves it up well. You may be fooled into thinking you are going to see some ancient relic far removed from today’s political climate. You couldn’t be more wrong. Go see it and you’ll understand why!
An Enemy of the People runs until June 24, 2017 at the Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond St. http://www.wheelhousetheater.com