In 1882, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen premiered “An Enemy of the People,” a play fundamentally about political corruption and having the courage to speak truth to power.
Although written over 135 years ago, the play disturbingly mirrors our current political climate and even a specific recent newsworthy event in Flint, Mich. The play manages to address topics of pollution, taxation, the role of the press in public affairs, abuse of power, whistleblowers, and mindless majority rule.
Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, who exposed the lead contamination in the Flint, Mich., water system, frequently alludes to “An Enemy of the People” in his writings and lectures.
Karon Semones Ferguson, owner of Star City Playhouse with her husband Marlowe, describes this production as “massive and intense.” Marlowe says that Ibsen’s play is so relevant that “it could have been written last week.”
To briefly sum up the storyline, the play is set in a coastal town in southern Norway, in what is destined to become a world-renowned tourist destination because of the town’s main industry– profitable health baths which are viewed as crucial to the economy of the town. Their beloved doctor has recently become suspicious that the health baths are contaminated with bacteria by an upstream tannery and poisoning those who use them. He submits a sample of water from the baths for chemical analysis, which confirms his suspicions.
He prepares to release the findings to the press and to members of the community, expecting their gratitude and support in exposing the contamination. Much to his surprise and dismay, the corrupt town leaders, including his brother the mayor, not only do not label him a “hero,” but insist that he retract his statements about the contamination as the repairs to the baths will be too costly to those in power both financially and by sullying their reputations.
The news media abandon their ideals and support for the doctor in the face of potential financial ruin. Eventually the entire town and the newspaper turn against the doctor and suppress the contamination report, subjugating the health of many to the economic interests of the town.
As a result, the doctor and his family are not just ostracized but physically attacked by the local citizens. He is ironically declared to be “an enemy of the people,” although his noble purpose is to safeguard the health of the town and its visitors, and to protect the town from an inevitable scandal when tourists discover the truth.
He and his school teacher daughter are fired. Their home is vandalized, their son beaten up, and their lives endangered. (There are some disconcerting crashes of rocks being thrown during the performance.) At first the family considers fleeing aboard ship to America, but ultimately decide to stand steadfast in their beliefs in honesty and integrity and remain in place.
The doctor concludes that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone,” and that “the majority isn’t right until it does right.”
There is a large cast for this fifth Star City Playhouse production in Vinton, with several new actors and some of their regular company who have starred in the previous productions since Star City moved to Vinton last winter. Even in dress rehearsal, their performances were riveting.
Chris Reidy has the lead role of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the highly ethical but sadly naive medical officer at the new Municipal Health Baths. He previously starred in Star City’s comedy “The Nerd” in May.
Gina Pierce plays his wife Katherine, and Latriva Pierce, his son Morten. Latriva, a student at William Byrd Middle School, also appeared in “The Nerd” as did her sister Eva Pierce, a student at William Byrd High School, who is cast as daughter Petra Stockmann, the school teacher in this current production.
Bob Toven plays Captain Horster, shipmaster and friend to Dr. Stockmann. He is also becoming familiar to Vinton audiences, having performed in February in Star City’s inaugural production of “Shakespeare in Love,” and in “Bus Stop” in July.
Joe Kavanaugh has the role of Morton Kiil in “An Enemy of the People,” the father-in-law of Dr. Stockmann and owner of the tannery which is contaminating the baths. He was also featured in “Bus Stop.”
Robert Smith, portrays Mayor Peter Stockmann, older brother of Dr. Stockmann, and a politician with a somewhat fluid moral code. His daughter, Kayla Smith, serves as stage manager.
Newcomer Lucas Pickett has the role of Hovstad, editor of the local newspaper, the “People’s Daily Messenger.” Johnny Dotson has been cast as Billings, sub-editor of the newspaper.
Gene Marrano appars as Aslaksen, the newspaper publisher and head of the homeowners association, who continually touts “moderation in all things.” Marrano is well known throughout the area as a print and broadcast journalist and editor, who performed at Star City in both “Shakespeare in Love,” and “The Nerd.”
Marlowe Ferguson is the director of “An Enemy of the People” and an actor in several scenes. He says that, “it is a great honor to do Ibsen’s play, describing the playwright as “deeply Christian, having an instinct for the truth.”
“An Enemy of the People” is performed in three acts, with two intermissions. Karon Ferguson has drawn from the period music of Norwegian Edvard Grieg to set the mood. She describes the costumes for this production as “amazing.”
“An Enemy of the People” opens on Friday, Sept. 1, and continues on weekends through September 17. Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. on September 1, 8, and 15, as well as matinee performances at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays on September 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, and 17. Tickets are $10 with a reduced price of $8 for seniors and students.
Parking is available throughout the downtown Vinton area and across the street at the former Vinton Motors lot.