Ibsen's `An Enemy of the People': still relevant 100 years later

An Enemy of the People Play by Henrik Ibsen. English version by Frank Hauser with Anna Bamborough. Directed by Mr. Hauser. Starring Roy Dotrice. The most relevant and stimulating play of the season to date has opened at the Roundabout Theatre on East 17th Street. The author deals with pollution, taxation, the role of the press in public affairs, the abuse of power, majority and minority rights, and other matters of current concern. The author is Henrik Ibsen. The play is ``An Enemy of the People,'' written in 1882.

At the time of its completion, Ibsen wrote to his Copenhagen publisher: ``I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama. It has many of the traits of comedy, but it is also based on a serious idea.''

British director Frank Hauser has chosen a sensible course. While paying due respect to the drama's grave problems, his vigorous treatment of the version which he and Anna Bamborough have prepared capitalizes on Ibsen's comic observations.

The directorial approach has been brilliantly realized in the two central performances. Roy Dotrice is in top form as Ibsen's Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the determined but naive public official who learns about greed and hypocrisy the hard way. Mr. Dotrice's outgoing, impulsive, high-minded, and dogmatic Thomas is matched by Paul Sparer's Mayor Peter Stockmann, the doctor's elder brother. Peter is a local politico whose pomposity is equaled by his shrewdness in a power play.

Dr. Stockmann has discovered that the water used for the baths of the local health spa, the town's remunerative tourist attraction, has become dangerously polluted. So has the town's water supply. The good doctor assumes that his well- documented findings will prompt the town and spa officials, headed by brother Peter, to authorize the costly repairs needed to remedy the situation. But as subsequent whistle blowers have discovered, the price of integrity may come too high.

One by one, Dr. Stockmann's allies in his campaign drop by the wayside and then become his most virulent foes. Billing and Hovstad (Barrett Heins and Mark Capri), the self-proclaimed liberal journalists, withdraw their editorial support and instead publish the mayor's ``official'' statement. Aslaksen (Gordon Chater), the paper's printer and representative of small business, proves himself moderate in all things except cowardice. Although greed and mendacity win the battle, Dr. Stockmann achieves victory of another kind.

``An Enemy of the People'' reaches its climax at the rigged public meeting during which the eloquent doctor courageously challenges and derides the hostile majority. While reaching eloquent heights, Mr. Dotrice here reveals Dr. Stockmann's weaknesses along with his strengths. Mr. Hauser amplifies the pandemonium by placing the heckling townspeople at the back of the Roundabout auditorium. The culmination of the Hauser-Dotrice interpretation occurs with the treatment of the famous last line -- ``The strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.'' Instead of delivering it in the tones of an anguished martyr, Mr. Dotrice proclaims the doctor's ``great discovery'' as if it has come to him as a joyous revelation.

Besides the superb portrayals by Messrs. Dotrice and Sparer, the revival maintains a solid standard of performance. The cast includes Janet Zarish as a decidedly New Woman Petra Stockmann, Ruby Holbrook as a devotedly long-suffering Mrs. Stockmann, DeVeren Bookwalter as the loyal Captain Horster, and Jack Bittner as Dr. Stockmann's grasping ignoramus of a father-in-law.

The production has been designed with a feeling for its period and Norwegian milieu by Bob Mitchell (setting), A. Christina Giannini (costumes), and Dennis Parichy (lighting). If the ``modern'' emphasis amounts at times to overemphasis, the compensation is a very lively piece of theater. ``An Enemy of the People'' is a playgoer's friend.

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