Within the past year, the following organizations and individuals chose to speak up even if there was hell to pay: CNN; MSNBC; The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Intelligence Community Whistleblower; Marie Yovanovitch; William Taylor; Gordon Sondland; Fiona Hill; Alexander Vindman; David Holmes; Joseph Maguire; Michael Atkinson; John Bolton; John Kelly; Lev Parnas; Andrew McCabe; Lisa Page; Adam Schiff; Nancy Pelosi; Mitt Romney; Bernie Sanders; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Ilhan Omar; Ayanna Pressley; Rashida Tlaib; Tulsi Gabbard; Beto O’Rourke; Greta Thunberg; The Hong Kong Protestors; Dr. Li Wenliang; Colin Kaepernick; Wade Robson; James Safechuck; Annabella Sciorra; Stacey Abrams; and Nan Whaley.
Those diverse notables have a kindred spirit in Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the emotional, determined and heroic truth-teller at the center of Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 drama An Enemy of the People, dynamically presented in the Herbst Theatre of Wright State University under the remarkably astute, atmospheric and intimate direction of W. Stuart McDowell. In his small Norwegian town, well-respected Dr. Stockmann is put to the test when his shocking discovery of polluted waters rips his community apart. On the verge of becoming a booming tourist resort thanks to its purported healing waters, the town eagerly awaits reaping financial rewards regardless of whether or not society is destroyed in the process. Despite heated warnings from his brother Peter, the Mayor and chief champion of the town’s impending spa, Dr. Stockmann passionately persists, finding support among the local press but ultimately losing control of the narrative due to an overwhelming majority unwilling to budge. “The public doesn’t want new ideas,” he’s told. “The public is much better off with old ideas.” In addition to environmental issues, the incredibly timely themes bolstering this thought-provoking showcase, expertly staged in-the-round, include freedom of the press, political gamesmanship, corporate corruption, and majority vs. minority friction.
As Dr. Stockmann, towering knockout Nick Martin is a moral pillar of strength and unyielding purpose, stressing the importance of courageously standing in one’s truth specifically in Act 2’s unnerving town meeting. In fact, Martin is so convincingly attacked as The Other I’m surprised McDowell didn’t encourage his cast to shout “lock him up!” for the sake of contemporary rally relevancy. Charismatic, handsome and versatile Will Graber, slickly commanding the stage with top hat and baton in tow as if camouflaging as a genteel Macheath, outstandingly portrays arrogant Peter, who will stop at nothing to see his pet project succeed even if it forever fractures his own family. The splendidly matched Martin and Graber are so believably adversarial yet bonded (at the town meeting, Graber cautiously dials down Peter’s vitriol in an attempt to stop the citizens from resorting to violence against Thomas after getting them revved up) that I found myself wondering about the backstories of their fascinating characters. What fueled their sibling rivalry? Who was the favored son growing up? Is Peter jealous of Thomas for being the patriarch of a loving family? Miller and Ibsen keep matters in the present, but the possibilities of the past entice nonetheless due to Martin and Graber’s skillfully mature finesse.
Elsewhere in principal roles, Hailey Marshall is supportive yet formidable as matriarch Catherine Stockmann, Annika Whetstone sparkles as Thomas and Catherine’s bright, perceptive daughter Petra, Christopher Wells (Billing) Cole Frasher (Aslaksen) and Louie Kurtzman (Hovstad) are superb as fickle journalists, Aidan Lord exudes elderly credibility as Catherine’s father Morten Kiil, Matthew Shanahan (Ejlif Stockmann) and Mikey Fried (Morten Stockmann) charm as Thomas and Catherine’s rambunctious sons, Dylan Roll offers comic relief as The Drunk, and Jake Siwek tenderly embodies Captain Horster, Thomas’ friend soon journeying to America. The large, terrifically focused ensemble bringing furious rage to the town meeting and whose repeatedly whispered chants against the Stockmanns eerily haunt the recesses of the mind consists of Abbie Bookman, Kyle Channell, Abby Choi, Xiao Ni Denker, Branden Fisher, Sydney Freihofer, Chap Hollin, Amanda Jacobson, Theo Karras, Kevin Lausche, Alexis Muhlenkamp, Brie Parsons, Nick Salazar, and Alex Tischer.
In addition to costumer Tatyana Kowalski’s attractive period designs including Graber’s dapper, runway-ready suit, McDowell’s excellent production team includes scenic designer Carleigh Siebert, lighting designer Malia Dalba, sound designer James Dunlap, dialect coach Deborah Thomas, and properties master John Lavarnway. McDowell also incorporates Academy Award winner Hildur Guonadóttir’s (Joker) Emmy and Grammy-winning music from the HBO series Chernobyl as dramatic underscore and creates a striking, Equus-esque Act 1 finale recalling the visceral sensual nuance of recent Broadway revivals staged by Tony-winning avant garde director Ivo van Hove (A View From the Bridge, West Side Story).
In stinging fashion, walking a delicate tight rope between comedy and drama, impeccable dialogue overflows in this richly resonate play: “You’re an official – you keep your convictions to yourself”; “We live and die on what the outside world thinks of us”; “Without moral authority there can be no government”; “The majority is never right until it does right.” Without a doubt, Miller and Ibsen are speaking to us at this crucial moment in American history. You won’t hear exact references to current affairs but the subtext is absolutely inescapable. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more important piece of theater happening in Dayton right now. In a perfect world, Wright State would take this show on tour to local high schools this spring and be remounted in some capacity this fall in conjunction with a voter registration drive as the presidential election intensifies.
Cutting deep as a fiercely urgent call to action, An Enemy of the People is simply one of the best productions of the season.
An Enemy of the People continues through March 1 in the downstairs, black box Herbst Theatre of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Dayton. Act One: 65 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Performances are 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500 or visit wright.edu/tdmp