Arthur Miller wrote his adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s late-19th-century play, “An Enemy of the People,” as the McCarthy-led purge of suspected Communists was gathering momentum in 1950.
Its relevance today — particularly with respect to environmental vs. public health issues and distrust of science in some political and business circles — makes this Studio Theatre production as timely and pertinent as ever.
A rivalry of almost biblical proportions pits brother against brother in a struggle over their town’s future. Dr. Thomas Stockman is a physician and scientist whose suspicions about poisons contaminating the waters of the town’s spa have been confirmed by a university lab. His brother, Peter, mayor of the town, threatens to ruin him if he makes his revelations public. Although the local newspaper’s editor and publisher are keen to shake up the political hierarchy, the mayor convinces them that publishing Tom’s story would wreck the town’s economy — dependent as it is on revenue from the spa and its “healing” waters.
When Tom tries to reveal his findings at a public forum after the newspaper refuses to print them, he’s declared “an enemy of the people.”
Angelo DiBiase cuts a sympathetic if naive figure as the well-intentioned doctor while Dan Sheffield is coldly villainous as the mayor. Ravi Tawney as the ambitious editor and Dean Schildkraut as his spineless publisher make an almost comical pair of pushovers. Only the doctor’s wife and daughter remain loyal: Gail Merzer Behrens cautiously at first, fiercely at the end; K.D. Guadagno with idealistic fervor in support of her father. A scheme by his father-in-law, played as a doddering geezer by Jules Jacobs, could send Tom to jail.
Studio’s artistic director, David Dubin, shows more courage than the fictional journalists of the play in presenting this melodramatic polemic. Miller made his point about the Red Scare of the 1950s far more subtly in the allegorical play “The Crucible.” Ibsen himself said his play was, in part, both drama and comedy. Some characters come off as caricatures to the point of farce. And a mob scene near the end is undercut at Studio by a recorded soundtrack. Better to place a few hecklers in the audience.
Still, “An Enemy of the People” is chilling in its echo of such headlines as the public water scandal in Flint, Michigan, or the fossil-fueled debate over climate change.