‘An Enemy of the People’: Standing Firm Against the Storm

Henrik Ibsen’s play is a timely tale of public good versus personal greed.
‘An Enemy of the People’: Standing Firm Against the Storm
Jeremy Strong plays Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a man who stands for the truth against his town that would have him back down, in "Enemy of the People." (Emilio Madrid)

NEW YORK—The importance of truth is at the heart of Henrik Ibsen’s powerful 1882 drama, “An Enemy of the People.” Topical since first published, it has been staged numerous times on Broadway, the latest of which is a thoroughly engaging production at Circle in the Square Theatre.

After years of struggle and a personal tragedy, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Jeremy Strong) enjoys a contented life. He has a lovely home in a small town in Norway, a thriving medical practice, and is a respected member of the community. One of his favorite enjoyments is the intellectual conversations he has with friends who regularly stop by to share his evening meal.

His enviable situation is thanks, in part, to his brother Peter (Michael Imperioli), the town mayor, who was very interested in Thomas’s suggestion of constructing bathhouses to take medicinal advantage of the waters in the area.

Michael Imperioli (of "The Sopranos" and "Goodfellas" fame) appears as Peter, the brother of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, in "An Enemy of the People." (Emilio Madrid)
Michael Imperioli (of "The Sopranos" and "Goodfellas" fame) appears as Peter, the brother of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, in "An Enemy of the People." (Emilio Madrid)

In order to save money, the baths and accompanying spa resort were not built to Thomas’s specifications. After several visitors became ill, Thomas, in his capacity as the baths’ medical director, has determined there are heavy concentrations of bacteria in the water, due to waste runoffs from local tanneries. Thomas prepares a detailed report on the matter, which he plans to share with the town.

Peter does not want the report made public, at least not yet. With the town’s economic future dependent on the tourism the baths bring in, the mayor fears any negative news would drive people away. Plus, the needed changes to make the baths safe would take at least two years and require an enormous capital investment. Peter instead suggests they try to make these improvements over a much longer period, while keeping the baths open in the meantime.

Thomas makes clear his determination to immediately release his report in the interests of public safety. However, he finds himself, to his utter shock, shunned by a majority of the townsfolk and denounced as “an enemy of the people” by those who would rather ignore his findings than dealing with the facts he presents.

Writer Amy Herzog, who has crafted a new version of the Ibsen text for this production, offers a searing indictment against greed and the hypocrisy of those who loudly proclaim they care about the people they represent, but in reality are more concerned with their own interests. Among this latter group are Hovstad (Caleb Eberhardt), the publisher of the town newspaper; and Aslaksen (Thomas Jay Ryan), who represents the local Property Owners Association.

They, along with Billing (Matthew August Jeffers), another employee at the paper, originally pledged Thomas their support, only to quickly change their minds when confronted with the economic realities of the situation and how it would affect their own positions in the community.

Hovstad (Caleb Eberhardt) and Petra (Victoria Pedretti), in a scene from "An Enemy of the People," now showing on Broadway. (Emilio Madrid)
Hovstad (Caleb Eberhardt) and Petra (Victoria Pedretti), in a scene from "An Enemy of the People," now showing on Broadway. (Emilio Madrid)

The work also shows how it is much easier to go along with the masses than stand against them. Thomas realizes it when much of what was once precious to him—home, practice, reputation—are all taken away as a result of him warning of the danger. Even those few who continue to support him, such as his daughter Petra (Victoria Pedretti), a local schoolteacher; and Horster (Alan Trong), a ship’s captain, find themselves dismissed from their positions by employers who claim they “had no choice” in the matter.

Through it all, one thing is clear: No matter how hard one tries to suppress the truth, it can never be fully silenced, as evidenced by the continual efforts of Peter and the others who ask, threaten, and cajole Thomas to publicly admit he was wrong. For despite all their efforts, questions continue to arise about just how safe the baths actually are.

Mr. Strong is the standout in the cast as he portrays Thomas as a profoundly principled man, with a bit too much naivete about how the world works. Thomas’s attitude changes from one of quiet honesty to desperate idealism and, finally, to weary resignation. Yet he always remains true to himself, no matter the cost.

Mr. Imperioli is quite convincing as Peter, a politician most concerned about the town’s bottom line. Calm and calculating, he thinks nothing of sacrificing anyone who might prove a hindrance to his efforts. Ms. Pedretti comes across well as Petra, an independent woman with a clear progressive streak. David Patrick Kelly cuts a chilling figure as Thomas’s father-in-law, who has his own reasons for wanting Thomas to keep silent.

Sam Gold’s staging of the play in the round works beautifully, with the audience feeling they are right in middle of the story and, at times, a part of it. The scenic design by dots also helps tremendously in this endeavor.

“An Enemy of the People” offers an important message regarding the concept of truth. It’s a message just as relevant now as in any other period of history.

The cast of "An Enemy of the People." (Carrington Spires)
The cast of "An Enemy of the People." (Carrington Spires)
‘An Enemy of the People’ Circle in the Square Theatre 235 W. 50th St., New York Tickets: 212-239-6200 or TeleCharge.com Runs: 2 hours (with a brief pause) Closes: June 23, 2024
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Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.