When the Pearl Theater Co. deciders chose to revive Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People in David Harrower's 2013 version--retitled Public Enemy--they couldn't have known how inflammatory the current presidential campaign would become. But as events have transpired this fall, the Hal Brooks production couldn't emerge at a less fortunate time.
Why is this materialization so out of kilter with the zeitgeist? Towards the end, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Jimonn Cole), the protagonist having become the people's enemy for insisting the town's revenue-producing baths are poisoned, addresses a meeting hoping to defend himself. Robbed of that possibility by the mayor's prohibiting resolution, Stockmann is infuriated and rants at those assembled. As he flails, he insists that democracy is barren and that not voting--repeat: not voting!--is the way to combat it.
This at a time when stateside Democrats and Republicans--though democracy is often tested but not repudiated--are doing their utmost to get out the vote. More than that, there are strategies afoot to fight restricting voting laws. So it's not the ideal climate in which to hear a man supposedly courting audience sympathy encourage a population to avoid the ballot box.
In other words, ticket buyers right now aren't likely to sit patiently while Stockmann--acting as if the auditorium is the Norwegian one he's facing--points at them as potentially willing to follow his lead. Today's auditors may, of course, subscribe to the anti-media stance Stockmann also advances. In the time of Donald J. Trump's hate-the-press campaign, some ticket buyers may nod their agreement with enthusiasm.
It's possible, however that those spectators may have already adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Harrower's 90-minute redaction of Ibsen's marvelous work. It's as if he decided to make a taut, terse one-two punch out of the drama. To some extent he's succeeded at doing as much. He's trimmed the script to the action revolving around Stockmann's discovering the compromised waters and intending to present his findings to his fellow citizens for their approval. As Ibsen has it, he obtains the support of the local newspaper for shutting down the baths but then loses the editor's backing. Harrower also retains the Stockman family's loss of their place in town--rocks thrown through windows, firings from positions, that sort of ostracism.
Harrower's is an understandable approach, but there is a sense that, as a result, aspects of the complete Ibsen version have been scanted. Stockmann's relationship with the initial stand-by-your-man Mrs. Stockmann (Nijala Sun) seems less than it should be. A broader consideration of Stockmann daughter Petra (Arielle Goldman) also appears to have been truncated.
None of this entirely deprives the actors, under Brook's direction, of their chances to make a good impression. Certainly, Cole gives his all during his late audience harangue. He uses the Pearl's entire wide stage to make his tough points. Sun is continually and strongly sincere. Goldman is a stern daughter. As the mayor, Guiesseppe Jones comes and goes with barely contained menace, and as newsmen and newspaper backers, Alex Purcell, Robbie Tann and John Keating are very credible weaklings.
Set designer Harry Feiner places them all in a stunning milieu. Whereas only a few weeks ago he created a comfortably squalid flat for the Pearl's revival of Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, he now goes sleek Norwegian modern for Public Enemy. In front of a spare light wood wall, spare light wood furnishings are moved around to depict the various locales. It's almost as if Halvard Solness, the master builder of Ibsen's The Master Builder, has imagined a smart Architectural Digest-like environment for these ill-fated folks.
At the end of the northern Norway day, Harrower raises a question about the wisdom of taking such liberties with a classic. He doesn't come up with an entirely convincing answer.