"An Enemy of the People" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
If you leave Goodman Theatre's superb revival of "An Enemy of the People" with your mind whirling from its provocative ideas, credit master dramatist Henrik Ibsen.
If Goodman's propulsive production keeps you on the edge of your seat, credit director/adapter Robert Falls.
And if the impassioned, indefatigable performance of Libertyville native Philip Earl Johnson takes your breath away, join the club. You'll be in the majority, although in Ibsen's world that's not necessarily the best place to be. But more about that later.
Goodman's production of Ibsen's oft-revived play about one man's attempt to speak truth to power couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. Adapted by Falls from Eleanor Marx-Aveling's translation, "An Enemy of the People" centers on embattled Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Johnson, whose slight slips didn't detract from his towering performance). Stockmann's a Norwegian physician who discovers the supposedly curative waters that feed the local spa -- the town's economic engine -- have turned toxic. The problem resides with runoff from upstream factories, including a tannery run by his father-in-law, Morton (David Darlow, reveling in the old man's irascibility).
Claiming tainted water turned the baths into "a poisonous cesspool," Stockmann has penned an article urging city officials to close the spa. Hovstad (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez), editor of the radical newspaper, agrees to print it, anticipating the article will spark a series exposing political corruption. The printer Aslaksen (Allen Gilmore, whose nicely modulated gentility almost makes his blatant self-interest palatable) is more circumspect, reluctant to risk his business and real estate by confronting powerful politicians.
Thomas' hidebound brother Peter (a furiously complex Scott Jaeck), mayor and spa chairman, argues against Thomas going public. He insists the revelations will close the spa, cripple tourism and undo the town's primary income source. But Peter's opposition isn't rooted entirely in civic concern. It also reflects his determination to preserve his political career and the brothers' long-standing sibling rivalry that erupts into a ferocious confrontation.
Written in 1882, the neatly ambiguous "Enemy" remains as relevant as today's headlines in its depiction of environmental crises such as the lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan, and the tendency of powerful people to choose profits over people, politics over principles.
Peter rejects Thomas' suggestion to repair and relocate the damaged pipes (more Flint echoes), insisting the cost (which increases with every telling) will raise taxes.
For the record, almost every character has an agenda, mostly rooted in obtaining, preserving or reclaiming power. Even whistle-blower Thomas is motivated by something other than righteous anger. Only in Thomas' case, it's ego and the certainty that he is the smartest man in any room.
His family, true believers all, is another story. Pregnant, pragmatic wife Katherine (Lanise Antoine Shelley, lovely in a convincing portrait of unwavering loyalty) remains by his side. So does his progressive daughter Petra, an underwritten role engagingly played by Rebecca Hurd.
Before long, Thomas' supporters turn, denouncing him at a raucous town meeting where interruptions by The Drunk (Larry Neumann Jr. in a comic relief cameo) can't stem the citizens' growing fury. Thomas responds with a shockingly elitist condemnation of the majority, which he decries as stupid animals, brainwashed into believing they are free even as they're manipulated by corrupt politicians.
"The only protection you people enjoy at the polls is the freedom to change your oppressors," he declares.
That sobering moment (and those that follow) reflect the neatly ambiguous nature of the play. "An Enemy of the People" poses thorny questions about our responsibilities to ourselves and our communities, free speech and the role of the press, democracy and hypocrisy. and the pursuit of truth -- inconvenient though it may be.
There's nothing particularly subtle about Ibsen's play or Goodman's fiercely acted production with its references to deplorables, draining the swamp and fake facts that echo the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath.
The timeliness, Falls' unflinching staging and the cast's remarkable performances make for an impressive revival. More important, though, are the ideas underscoring the ever-resonant "Enemy," those "inconvenient truths" we dare not forget.
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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through April 15. Also 7:30 p.m. April 3. No 7:30 p.m. show March 25 and April 8
Running time: About two hours, 20 minutes with intermission
Parking: $22 with Goodman validation at the Government Self Park at Lake and Clark streets
Rating: For teens and older; features mature subjects and strong language