Robert Falls' adaptation of 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" at the Goodman Theatre provides the perfect platform for Falls to "Howl" at the "ongoing horrific, terrible" world as he sees it. He has loaded the dialog with references to the present political, environmental and economic situation in which we find ourselves. References to "draining the swamp" and the" deplorable" townspeople," pepper the dialog. "I was as angry as Ibsen was," Falls admitted at a recent discussion, and his direction of the play brims over with that anger.
The story concerns a doctor, Tom Stockmann, who discovers a town's public spa is contaminated and his eventually failed attempt to persuade the Mayor and the townspeople to close it and raise taxes in order to provide the funding necessary for remediating it. Similar situations in the country today can be easily cited.
The second act changes the focus of the play from the ethical problem related to the question of what is good for the community, to a personal one-the problem that Ibsen faces when his public and critics fail to accept his ideas. (The critics railed at his previous play, 'Ghosts" which dealt with the problem of syphilis.) By the second act, Falls has pushed the plot surrounding the spa to the background and instead we focus on the disintegraton of Stockmann from Act One's whistle blower hero to an "Enemy of the people" who continues to 'howl' to the end that he is the "only" man who can fix the problem, echoing a theme of the 2016 election. Declared an "Enemy of the People" by the townspeople, Stockmann fails to understand what the audience recognizes--that he is his own worst "enemy."
The conclusion follows that of Ibsen's. During a preview discussion, Falls said he was not satisfied with his ending. I tend to agree. In this adaptation, Tom's last line sounds like the "howl" of an egocentric, self pitying narcissist. Arthur Miller, in his 1966 film production, elicits the audience's support for Stockmann, a man who is trying to save a community despite his weaknesses. In the recent Red Orchid Theatre's adaptation by Brett Neveu, it is not Stockmann, but the son, who has the final say and returns the drama to the problem of contamination, crying out that he is dying from it; his father's desire to revenge himself against the community degrades the issue. I found this ending the most chilling. And also the most powerful statement on today's situations that are all too often based on economic rather than humanistic decisions.
While Falls follows Ibsens conclusion, he has made other changes. One is that he eliminates the character of Stockmann's son. Since he has placed the effects of the contaminated spa in a secondary position, the elimination of the son does not create any problems. However, the change in Stiocknman's wife, Katherine, does. Falls has made her Stockmann's second wife and she is pregnant. There does not appear to be any reason for either of these changes and, in fact, the unborn child seems to be a red herring. I kept expecting Katherine to have a miscarriage either because of Stockmann's behavior or from having been exposed to the spa water. Neither occurred.
The acting is superb as you expect from the Goodman. Scott Jaeck's delivery of Stockmann's speech to the City Council in the 4th act left me dejected and angry in turns as he caught me and the audience up in this powerful monologue that berates the townspeople for their stupidity, declaring, "The majority is not always right." and disdainfully calls them "dogs."
I have seen three adaptations--Miller's, Neveu's, and Falls-- of this play in the past month. Each different. Each with its own interpretation. All excellent.