Building on the work of ‘good old carpenter’ Ibsen

[/media-credit] Doctor in the house: Stockmann sounds the environmental alarm.

1882 play is a sign of election year times

BY JERRY TALLMER  |   Good old carpenter Henrik Ibsen, who saws every board as true as daisies and drives every nail piercingly home, never goes out of fashion. And as long as suicidal brainless human greed despoils what’s so delicately termed “the environment” — not to mention five centuries of rational enlightenment — Ibsen’s iron-souled “An Enemy of the People” will certainly never go out of date (until homo sapiens themselves go out of date).

Think! We in the United States are about to have an election. In this throwback era of maniacal rejection of the laws of science and logic by a terrifying share of the American body politic, nothing could be more relevant than the hammer blows of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”

Written in 1882, it has been done at least eight times here in New York beginning with one single performance starring Britain’s Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in April of 1895. I missed that one and I guess all the others, up to and including Arthur Miller’s take on it in 1950.

Now we have a new take on it, directed by the estimable Doug Hughes for the Manhattan Theatre Club in an adaptation by England’s up-and-coming Rebecca Lenkiewicz “from a literal version by Charlotte Barslund.”

The Lenkiewicz “Enemy” first reached the stage in April 2008 at artistic director Mehmet Ergen’s little fringe Arcola Theatre in London’s East End, which is also where Ms. Lenkiewicz as playwright and the Arcola itself had come into existence with her very first work, “Soho – A Tale of Table Dancers,” based on personal experiences back in her 20s. She’s written a half-dozen more serious things since then, one of them — “Her Naked Skin” — about the Suffragettes.

No, she says, table dancers — at least in Piccadilly — do not dance on the tables; they dance, somewhat undressed, around the tables.

Yes, for money. Not much money, she says.

She’s pretty bored with the whole ancient subject, as well as with her nickname then — Legs Lenkiewicz — and who can blame her. But, when we meet, during tech rehearsals, in a sort of lounge in the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, her height and her long, long legs are, well, the first things to catch the eye.

“An Enemy of the People” takes place in a small Norwegian town where the whole economy — everybody’s income — derives from its curative baths (a sort of Warm Springs visited by anxious clientele from all over Europe).

There is only one real doctor in town, a Dr. Thomas Stockmann, overseer of the cleanliness and therapy of the baths — which have never given cause for concern until now, when tests conducted by Dr. Stockmann have come back reporting poisons from a nearby tannery in the soil around the baths.

At a town meeting presided over by the town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann, brother of Thomas Stockmann, the doctor moves to close the baths, his brother moves vociferously against him (rather like something named Donald Trump), and all hell breaks loose.  In the end, Thomas Stockmann, and his wife and three children, have lost their house and their livelihood and just about everything else, but he still has his pride.

A scientist’s pride.

An artist’s pride.

A self-exiled (to Italy and Germany, for 27 years) great Norwegian artist Henrik Ibsen’s pride.

Maybe a little bit too much pride.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz was born in Plymouth, a seaport on the southwest corner of the British Isles. Her father, Peter Quint, was 17 when she was born. Her first exposure to Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) was a TV movie starring Ingrid Bergman, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Trevor Howard in “Hedda Gabler” when Rebecca was a student in her teens at William and Mary College in Virginia.

“And I played Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ and Lady Macbeth — at 22! — in summer stock.”

What had been her greatest problems in giving “Enemy” a new face, a new heart?

“Just to get under the skin of the characters. Because the story and the structure are there. I think the basic job of the playwright is to hear voices. My instinct is just to make it alive to myself.”

How many drafts?

“First draft, one month. Second draft, one month. Third draft, one month. And I loved doing it.”

The Dr. Stockmann of the Arcola production had been Rebecca’s “then boyfriend,” Greg Hicks. Her boyfriend now is not an actor. “He works in the London underground” — i.e., subway system. “He’s a lovely man.” She also says Doug Hughes is a lovely man, Tom Stoppard is a lovely man, plus other lovely men who slipped by me.

There is a body blow deep within Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s “An Enemy of the People,” and I’ll have to let you wait for it. Maybe Dr. Thomas Stockmann, truth-seeker, rationalist, researcher — artist! — is as crazy as all the rest of them.

“Ibsen was full of anger — the anger of the artist,” says Ms. Lenkiewicz. “It’s not an easy thing or a black-and-white thing. Arthur Miller makes Stockmann much more the hero, and I wanted to get away from that.”

Here is how one person who saw the 2008 London production — Michael Billington in The Guardian — appraised her success:

“Mehmet Ergen’s lean revival of this troubling attack on liberal cowardice is far superior to the laborious spectacle the National gave us a decade ago. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation, avoiding the soft soap of Arthur Miller’s version, never tries to disguise the anti-democratic nature of the protagonist.”

Arthur Miller’s 1950 version, directed by the Group Theater’s Robert (Bobby) Lewis, had among its stars Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Florence Eldridge, Fredric March, Lou Gilbert, Art Smith, Fred Stewart, Rod Steiger, and — still alive today — the James Karen who once ran an antiques shop on Greenwich Avenue.

The MTC cast at the Friedman has Boyd Gaines, Richard Thomas, Maïté Alina, Gerry Bamman, Kathleen McNenny, Randall Newsome, John Procaccino, Michael Siberry, James Waterston and a clutch of townspeople.

P.S. to Ms. Lenkiewicz: I don’t think the residents of a small town in Norway in the 1880s were using words like “outed” or “closet” or “infrastructure” in the sometimes current sense. I hate the word “infrastructure” anyway, don’t you?

All best, JT.

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
By Henrik Ibsen

Adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by Doug Hughes
Open Run
At Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St. (btw. Broadway & Eighth Ave.)
For tickets ($67-120) and more info, visit manhattantheatreclub.com or call 800-447-7400

 

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