Still to come is another adaptation, a version set in Israel by playwright Boaz Gaon called “Boged (Traitor): An Enemy of the People,” starting Jan. 12 at Theater J. Is it a coincidence that so many companies are drawn to the story of a man who’s blackballed for shoving a harsh reality in taxpayers’ faces?
Viewing the two versions of “Enemy,” staged by directors Kwame Kwei-Armah in Baltimore and Doug Hughes in New York, without an eye and an ear to the sorry current condition of political discourse seems an impossibility. Is there any perceived value in public life these days in leveling with the people? As demonstrated by the case of Stockmann — who in speaking out loses everything except the love of his family — a public figure pays more dearly, the bitterer the pill he seeks to administer.
“An Enemy of the People” may strike some as prosaic political theater. In the adaptation composed by Arthur Miller (and used at Centerstage) and a more recent one by British dramatist Rebecca Lenkiewicz at Manhattan Theatre Club, the morality tale unfolds starkly, a linear advance that begins on the night Stockmann (Dion Graham in Baltimore; Boyd Gaines in New York) learns that his fears about the springs have been confirmed in lab tests. What I love about the play is its lean, clean narrative structure, the purity of its outrage and altruism. That Ibsen’s drama prefigured by 100 years the scourge of toxic waste — the springs are tainted by a tannery upstream — cements it as a watershed of voice-in-the-wilderness drama, clearing a path for generations of alarm-bell-ringers on the stage, from Frank Wedekind (the original “Spring Awakening”) to Clifford Odets (“Waiting for Lefty”) and even to Mike Daisey (“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”).
Although the unevenly acted Baltimore and New York revivals are not definitively satisfying renditions of the play, Kwei-Armah’s version at Centerstage comes closer to mustering the desired stirring effect. Bolstered by Miller’s superior treatment and a terrific embodiment of the slick and craven town mayor by Kevin Kilner, the Baltimore “Enemy” drives home Ibsen’s lessons in a far more convincing fashion. Richard Thomas, portraying the mayor in the New York production as an effete nasty, telegraphs the evil way too transparently, and some others in the New York cast, such as Gerry Bamman as a local printer and Michael Siberry as the doctor’s father-in-law, are weirdly hammy.
Perhaps, too, the choice by Kwei-Armah, Centerstage’s artistic director, to push the play forward in time to 1960 eliminates enough of “An Enemy of the People’s” vintage feel without going overboard with contemporary analogy. This allows the set and costume designers, Riccardo Hernandez and David Burdick, respectively, to apply to the physical production some voguish “Mad Men” elements. (The multiracial casting exudes more freshness.) But the volume of tinkering does become a little self-serving: The display of early TV technology to highlight the way electronic media can amplify the majority’s hysteria proves more distracting than illuminating.