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Anderson University Stages Bold “Enemy of The People"

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

Does the truth still matter?

It’s a question Americans seem to be mulling a lot these days.Anderson University stages bold “Enemy” about truth

And it’s an issue at the heart of Arthur Miller’s bold and strikingly relevant adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” which opened Thursday at Anderson University’s Belk Theatre.

An all-student cast, under the deft direction of AU theater professor Robert Homer-Drummond, offers a powerful production of this drama about the fate of truth in a society ruled by fear, self-interest and hyper-partisanship.

Ibsen’s “Enemy” is set in 1882 although Homer-Drummond has moved the play up to the 1950s, when Miller wrote his adaptation.

The play centers on an honest, public-spirited man, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who has discovered an inconvenient truth: that the water in his spa town has been poisoned by industrial pollution. 

The water threatens the health and lives of the people who journey to enjoy the touristy baths.

But the town’s fortunes depend on the income from the springs. It is, as one character says, “a gold mine.”

As always in the case of big environmental threats (think Flint, nuclear waste and climate change), fixing the problem of the polluted springs will cost a lot of public money. And the springs will have to be shut down for two years.

It matters little that Stockmann has the strength of scientific evidence on his side. It’s a fact that people are being poisoned by the springs. But the town’s self-satisfied leaders, notably Stockmann’s authoritarian brother, Peter, who happens to be the mayor, are much less concerned about the welfare of others than about their own wallets. 

It’s an age-old conflict: truth versus mammon.

For speaking truth to power and trying to save his town, Thomas Stockmann is branded “an enemy of the people.” (It’s a chilling phrase, of course, that has been hurled recently at the American press by a current elected official at the highest level of government.)

It was a gutsy decision for Anderson University to produce this play only a few weeks before an election. “Enemy” takes a dim view of fat cats, conservative conformity, and government complacency and secrecy.

The play’s heroes are the free press and truth-telling liberal reformers.

Miller wrote this extensive adaptation of Ibsen’s drama during that remarkable eight-year period when the playwright produced his other great morality plays: “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge.”

“Enemy” shares with those plays Miller’s glowing sense of decency, love of freedom and sympathy for the underdog.

Miller’s prose often breathes righteous fire. It’s a wonderfully rich text, certainly melodramatic at times. Thomas Stockmann, for instance, is both a doubting Thomas and a Christ figure, persecuted for telling the truth and repeatedly tempted by leading citizens – or as he puts it, “all the ambassadors of hell” -- to compromise his principles.

He is, however, a man who can’t be bought.

Homer-Drummond, the director, and assistant director Megan Rosener lead a dynamic production in AU’s intimate Belk Theatre. The actors deliver the text with clarity and force, even if the play on Thursday night never quite reached its full rafter-shaking potential. There were a few awkward pauses on opening night and sight-line problems as well, although continued performances should tighten things up.

Homer-Drummond and Rosener, much to their credit, identify several opportunities for humor in what is otherwise a serious drama. Moving the 19th century play to the 1950s was a clever idea, likely to put the audience in mind of the repressive McCarthy era that ensnared such great talents as Arthur Miller. What happens in Ibsen/Miller’s Norwegian town certainly is akin to a Red Scare in miniature.

Nick Holland and John Leggett contribute strong, standout performances as, respectively, the hero Dr. Thomas Stockmann and his blunt brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann. Their pitched confrontations are highlights of the play.

Kelly Lee is a sympathetic Catherine Stockmann, Thomas’ wife, the family peacemaker.

Cami Walters is a winning Petra Stockmann, Thomas’ daughter, a teacher who represents Ibsen’s clear-eyed, independent-minded woman of the future.

Tyler Rabideau does a nice turn as the doddering old publisher Aslaksen, Ibsen’s symbol of the complacent bourgeoisie, with his constant shouts of “moderation!”

DeAndre Weaver plays the sailor Captain Horster with the right note of devil-may-care gusto.

Maggie McNeil steals a scene as the forthright town drunk.

Other fine contributions are offered by Griffen Poore, Tyler White, Adam Hobbs, Aaron Fletcher, Eli Stone and Alexis Morehead.

The set by Dalton Cole and Cami Waters is excellent, foregrounded by a misty water stream: a suggestion of the poisoned waters and a potent reminder that empirical truth is hard to deny. 

Three performances remain of this compelling “An Enemy of the People”: 2 and 7:30 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, see the Anderson University website or call 864-231-2080.

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about everything under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

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