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THEATER REVIEW: “An Enemy Of The People” has message that rings true today

Henrik Ibsen wrote “An Enemy Of The People” in 1882 in response to criticism and controversy surrounding the subject matter of his previous play “Ghost,” which was about syphilis.

Some 70 years later, Arthur Miller adapted Ibsen’s original “Enemy” in response to the “red scare” hysteria whipped up in the U.S. in the late 1940s.

Now Intrepid Shakespeare Company has tinkered a bit with the Miller adaptation, dropping a few characters and moving the setting from Norway to Riverton, Maine, in 1954. It plays through Feb. 19 in the company’s new home at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre at San Dieguito Academy.

Riverton, the site of a spa called Clearwater Springs, has begun to attract attention and tourist dollars in amounts that could change the economic fortune of this quiet little burg.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Matt Scott), a lovable if eccentric scientist, was instrumental in the creation of the spa, but has wondered about the close association between the spring and illnesses contracted by spa users. He’s just received confirmation that the “healing” waters are being polluted by runoff from the tannery upstream.

He calls Hovstad (Brian Mackey) and Billing (Robert Biter), editors of the local paper, hoping for publicity that will save lives – and perhaps make him a bit of a hero in the process. They jump on board immediately with plans to publish the report.

But speaking truth to power is a dangerous business, and when they get a visit from the the good doctor’s brother Peter (Eric Poppick), the town’s mayor, pointing out that fixing the problem could cost a fortune and take more than two years (endangering the nascent economic boom), the crusading journalists fold and agree not to publish.

Stockmann becomes the town pariah, his supporters pull away one by one, leaving only his daughter Polly (Erin Petersen) to speak for him. Even his stalwart wife Catherine (Brenda Dodge) is fearful of the consequences of his stubborn refusal to cave.

Stockmann calls a public meeting to explain his position, but is stymied by Peter and the lily-livered journalists; finally, by mob vote, he is declared “an enemy of the people.”

Someone once wrote that “An Enemy Of The People” has inspired 85% of all Hollywood film plots. It’s a great topic: The tyranny of the majority is always a danger in a democratic society, and the U.S. has been guilty of unconscionable acts in the name of majority opinion.

Scott is terrific as Stockmann, spiraling from the confidence of a scientist with an important discovery to a haunted man with angry mobs throwing rocks at his house.

Poppick is excellent as the man you love to hate, the mayor, who chooses economic good over the health of the people.

Mackey, Biter and Danny Campbell are convincing as the weak-kneed journalists. Campbell plays the paper’s publisher, whose motto is “The highest civic virtue is moderation.”

Antonio (TJ Johnson) is a hoot as Stockmann’s amusing father-in-law, who delights in and then takes advantage of the economic possibilities of a spa shutdown.

Democracy is a great ideal, but the dangers of mob rule and corruption must be guarded against. “An Enemy Of The People” is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1882.

Bravo to Intrepid for this lovely production.

The details

“An Enemy Of The People” plays through Feb. 19 in the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre at San Dieguito Academy, 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas.

Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

For tickets, call (760) 652-5011.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.