“Yes, my hometown is so dear to me that I would rather ruin it than see it flourishing upon a lie.” – Dr. Tom Stockman
It is 1972 in a South Fork, Carolina, and David Duke is in town for a Klan rally. Director Ellen Geer has freely adapted Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and taken it out of southern Norway and the result is nothing short of astonishing. The first words we hear from the company of actors who once again grace this enviably large playing area with their talent and conviction are “White Power!”, and it is a cringe-worthy opening that sets us up for all that is to come. This is not a production that chooses to tiptoe around anything. This is a show that frames an important conversation we as a nation seem incapable of having around a secondary moral concern and it makes it work. Thankfully, David Duke is only with us for a short time but his followers are numerous and their voices are never silent in this adaptation that not only addresses the political concerns Ibsen presented in his original play but also supercharges the text with an added layer of racial tension for Dr. Thomas and Katherine Stockman are a biracial couple with three children (two boys and one girl plus Patience, see below). Eight years later, we meet them as they prepare for Christmas, and for a fight that will pit Tom’s integrity against the fear and greed that seems to have gotten the upper hand in his hometown.
Dr. Tom Stockman (Christopher W. Jones) is still the Medical Officer at the spa [changed from the original ‘municipal baths’]. He and his wife spent ten years overseas with Doctors Without Borders after being ostracized for their interracial marriage before returning home with the idea for the spa. Katherine’s eldest daughter from a previous partner Patience (Constance Jewell Lopez) is still a teacher but while Ibsen gave Tom an elder brother Peter, Geer has gender-flipped the role of the mayor and leading town authority, giving Tom an elder sister named Mildred (Katherine Griffith). Mrs. Katherine Stockman (Earnestine Phillips) is no longer an adopted daughter and her father Cornell (Gerald Rivers) no longer makes his living as a tanner, instead, he is a pig farmer. Newspaper editor of the “People’s Voice” Hovstad has been changed to Horatio (Max Lawrence) and he now works with assistant editor Gerald (Terrence Wayne, Jr.), a young man who is not afraid to mention that the white people in town are the ones who benefit the most from the money the spa is generating. Captain Billings (Steven C. Fisher) still captains a boat, only now it’s a cruise liner and Alan Phillips (Jeff Wiesen) is head of the South Fork homeowner’s association.
Jones’ Stockman seems a lot more aware of the flaws in the character of the people around him than Ibsen’s Stockmann appeared to be. In his hands, Stockman feels less like a man at the mercy of his own temper and more like a man on the edge who is pushed to voice his opinions when he cannot sit and take it any longer. In his first conversation with his sister, he comes right out and asks her if she’s still with the Klan. There is clearly a complicated history between the two that both Jones and Griffith breathe life into with ease and clarity of purpose. When Mildred’s anger gets the better of her and she tells her brother ”Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining!”, we get a fairly vivid picture of their entire life together. It would be tempting to turn Mildred into a one-dimensional villain but Griffith instead opts to shape her into a figure that could almost step in for any member of the U.S. Congress these days. She’s lost touch with the things that matter the most (family, for one, people in general, for another) and has embraced the darkest aspects of Capitalism when she puts the cost in front of the quality of the lives of their customers at the spa. She wasn’t solely responsible but it seems the blame could rather fairly be laid at her feet for the decision to choose the cheapest possible options when building the pipelines that feed the spa and now her younger brother has confirmed that this has led to contamination of the water supply – in large part from his father-in-law’s pig farm. None of this is good news.
After dealing with a number of sick patients the season before, Tom has gone ahead and tested the water in the spa and a report arrives that confirms his worst fears – the water is essentially poison with a large dose of bacteria mixed in for good measure. Though his wife warns him against any action he might take against his sister or the spa, Tom is certain that his being right about this is enough to ensure he will win the day. As any of us who watch the news or check our President’s Twitter feed are already aware, right does not make might – and might usually win. Riding high on the adrenaline of his discovery, Tom is certain Horatio’s newspaper will be on his side, but when Mildred gets word that Tom has handed over his report to be published, she pays Horatio a visit and lets him and Alan know how much all of the repairs will end up costing (one million dollars, at least) all of which she will pass on to the taxpayers via a municipal fund. This visibly dims the previously righteous newsmen’s fervor, for as Alan notes later on during a town council meeting, “You can pay too dearly for a thang sometimes…”.
With Mildred’s help – and then with Alan’s, and Horatio’s – the town turns on Tom. They all seem to be willing to give up for a better future for their children, the long-term sustainability of the town and the assurance that they are not poisoning their customers in favor of saving a few dollars. It is infuriating, but when we are tempted to indulge in that feeling, it is wise to remember that we are no better. Flint, MI still doesn’t have safe drinking water and, need I remind you all, that crisis began in 2014. It’s hard to label something a crisis that has gone on for five years with no end in sight. Alan might help us understand how something like that happens when he argues that Tom should only seek change in moderation, urging him not to consider attempts at making great leaps forward. If you are following politics here in the United States, you may understand how this suggestion strikes a resonant, frustrating, chord.
Tom speaks out against moderation – and against the systematic racism in his hometown, and against his sister, and against corruption and greed. His thanks for this effort? He is declared an enemy of the people. Stones are thrown through his window. His family is threatened and they are evicted from their home. His father-in-law comes to blackmail him. See, he has spent all of his money buying up shares of the spa and he knows that will make it look as though Tom ‘set up’ the medical emergency in order to profit off the sale. For the sake of his wife and children, he is tempted to give in but when the ‘liberal media’ and ‘civic duty’ embodied by Horatio and Alan come to his house and all but order him to change his mind about publishing his report on the state of the water in South Fork, Tom doubles down and insists he is better off maintaining his standards alone, with his family and Captain Billings by his side.
When Mildred first hears about the report she makes her point of view quite clear when she declares, “The public doesn’t need any new ideas. They’re best served by the good, old established ideas it already has.” If that doesn’t make your blood run a little bit colder, you might need to think a bit more about a statement like that. Dr. Stockman pulls no punches in his lengthy presentation during the town hall meeting (it was just as long in the original text) when he observes that, “Lack of oxygen weakens the conscience. And there must be a plentiful lack of oxygen in many houses in this town, judging that the whole compact majority in South Fork can be so stupid as to agree to build the town’s prosperity on a poisonous quagmire of falsehood and deceit.” He is ultimately convinced that others will respond to the stand he is taking and join him and his family plus Captain Billings, even as the lights dim on the seven of them in the final moments of the play. “What I want to do is so simple, clear and straightforward.”- he says – “I want to drum into the heads of these curs the fact that the moral majority is the most insidious enemy of freedom—that party programs strangle every young and vigorous truth—that inequality and money turn morality and justice upside down—and that they’ll end by making life on earth unbearable. Don’t you think, Captain, that I ought to be able to make people understand that?”
I, for one, do.
At the performance I attended, Connor Clark Pascale performed the role of David Duke and Matthew Pardue performed the role of Joe. Matthew Pardue is the David Duke alternate. The ensemble includes Garrett Botts, Matthew Domenico, Colin Guthrie, Margaret Kelly, Matthew Pardue, Connor Clark Pascale, Jack Tavcar, Ann Telfer and Laura Wineland playing the townspeople of South Fork. The younger Stockman children are played by Ken Ivy (Julius), Joseph Iwunze (Tyrone) and Joelle Lewis (Joey). The play is directed by Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall. Sarahjeen François is the Assistant Director. Elna Kordijan is the Stage Manager. Caitlyn Ryan is the Assistant Stage Manager. Costume Design and Wardrobe Supervision by Beth Eslick. Tracy Wahl is the Costume Assistant. Sydney Russell is the Properties Manager. Valeriya Nedviga is the Sound Designer. Lighting Design by Zachary Moore. Hayley Blonstein, Sarah Donovan and Samara Handelsman are the Production Assistants.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.