The Goodman’s new Enemy of the People gives us a hero we can’t believe in | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The Goodman’s new Enemy of the People gives us a hero we can’t believe in

This Thomas Stockmann is courageous, tenacious, and a little nuts: a man of our times.


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F or a surly old man in Victorian muttonchops, Henrik Ibsen has turned out to be endlessly adaptable. It seems every generation gets the Ibsen it needs. In the early aughts you couldn't go a season without watching at least a few Hedda Gablers blow their brains out because of the patriarchy. Now we've got a spate of Thomas Stockmanns—courageous, tenacious, not a little nuts—blowing the whistle on small-town oligarchs in productions of An Enemy of the People. Including the astute and entertaining one running now at the Goodman Theatre.

And why not? Stockmann looks like the perfect hero for a time when scientific findings are belittled, the Environmental Protection Agency is on the ropes, and kids in Flint, Michigan, still don't dare drink from the water fountains at school. The man Ibsen gives us is a physician who equates facts with truth and truth with virtue. He designed the system of pipes that feeds water to the mineral baths that have made a popular spa of his little Norwegian hometown.

But when Thomas went off to bring the light of his knowledge to an apparently benighted region in the country's north, he left the actual construction of the system to the town fathers—led by his brother the mayor, Peter. And the town fathers cut corners to save money. Now that Thomas is back, working as the baths' medical officer, he suspects that a rash of illnesses can be traced to the corner cutting. So he commissions a study the results of which prove, sure enough, that the system is compromised and pollutants from upstream factories are leaching into the bathwater.

Never one to keep silent in the face of well-grounded conclusions affecting the common good, Thomas writes a scathing report saying the spa needs to be shut down, cleaned up, and completely rebuilt. Charmingly, he thinks this will make him a champion in the eyes of a grateful populace. Working from his own adaptation, director Robert Falls builds a running gag around Thomas's expectation (based, for once, on absolutely no empirical evidence) that they're going to throw a parade for him, along with his modest protestations that he doesn't want anything ostentatious. He's just happy to serve.

Boy, is he ever dreaming. As brother Peter is the first to point out, a shutdown will cost the town precious income, not to mention its reputation as a healing getaway. And a true fix of the sort Thomas advocates will cost millions (another running gag: the mayor's higher and higher estimates of how many millions), requiring a tax hike. Ibsen is great at teasing out the many strands of self-interest, and conflicts of interest, that insinuate themselves around everybody involved, Thomas not excepted, wrapping them up like those creepy pod tendrils in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Courage here lies in staying awake long enough to keep from becoming a pod person yourself. Thomas is capable of that, and Ibsen clearly admires him for it. The original script ends happily, after a fashion, with a bloody but unbowed Thomas famously declaring that "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone"—to which his wife and daughter respond with loving approval.

But Ibsen also gave his strongman plenty of weaknesses—especially arrogance and self-righteousness, with their attendant tone-deafness, misanthropy, and even eugenic fantasies (third running gag: Thomas assuring people that he means "no offense" as he tells them how terribly stupid they are). Falls and his Thomas, Philip Earl Johnson, latch on to these frailties. Last year, when Falls directed Uncle Vanya to celebrate his 30th anniversary at Goodman Theatre, I wrote that he gave the play the wisdom of his 60-plus years, bypassing any reductive temptations to supply an empathic vision of a household full of suffering people. Same applies here, but with an interesting political twist. This Thomas is silly, noble, ugly, and blind; he says things that would make Bernie Sanders proud (in fact, he says things Sanders has said) and then reaches into the alt-right vocabulary of a Steve Bannon. If you think this Enemy is going to vindicate some cherished whistleblower romance a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you're wrong. Falls's adaptation doesn't end quite the way Ibsen intended.

His approach works in large part because of the extraordinary gravitas of the cast, each member of which presents a life rather than a role. Scott Jaeck draws unexpected sympathy as the supposedly ruthless Peter. David Darlow opens a vein of rage as Thomas's father-in-law, Morton. And Lanise Antoine Shelley conducts a quiet study of her own as Thomas's loyal wife, Katherine, coming up with some unexpected findings.   v

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