Enemy of the People, fits well in ‘Season of Inciting Theatre’

BY KATIE HANSON | MARCH 26, 2009 7:40 AM

This year is rather timely for Dreamwell Theatre’s season-opener.

In an era in which people are losing their jobs, their homes, and their comfortable standard of living, sacrificing health in the name of economic security might not seem like a bad tradeoff. In fact, it’s a tradeoff many are making.

Such is the case in legendary dramatist Henrik Ibsen’s famous 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, which will open Friday at the Universalist Unitarian Society, 10 S. Gilbert St.

The town in which the play is set is in the midst of an economic boom due to its local baths, which draw swarms of tourists. But conditions soon go bad when Dr. Thomas Stockmann discovers the town’s tannery is polluting the baths, in turn making the tourists sick.

Instead of being celebrated, the town’s residents turn on Stockmann when they realize how this news could affect their livelihoods.

“It seems when [Stockmann] makes this discovery, it’s going to be the best thing ever,” said Angie Toomsen, who is making her directorial début with An Enemy of the People. “But then one thing after another keeps knocking him down, and the townspeople ask him to change his stance once they start to question how much it means to them.”

The play fits right along with Dreamwell Theatre’s theme for the upcoming season, which has been dubbed the Season of Inciting Theatre.

“Each of the plays, at the time they were initially produced, caused a certain amount of controversy, either surrounding the play itself or the performance,” she said.

Local actor Kevin Burford, who plays Stockmann, said the play is an attack on the “tyranny of the majority.”

“It’s saying the majority is always wrong,” he said. “It’s a little critical of democracy.”

The tension in the play increases as Stockmann refuses to renounce his findings, Toomsen said, and the townspeople’s irritation leaps to a high pitch of anger as they ostracize Stockmann and his family.

“It’s not just his reputation, but the security of his family that’s on the line,” she said. “There are high stakes on the decision to stand by what he believes to be the truth.”

The protagonist’s courage prevails, Burford said, but the ultimate cost is unknown.

“It’s the definition of drama to be pulled in more than one direction,” he said.

Burford said he was drawn to the character because instead of being black and white, Stockmann exists in morality’s gray area.

“Although he’s heroic, he’s also flawed,” the actor said. “He’s naïve, sexist, and full of himself. He’s righteous, but he’s also self-righteous.”

Burford said he is trying to bring out the underlying humor in his role, which will make it both easier for him to create and for the audience to digest.

“A lot of the humor comes from Kevin’s portrayal,” Toomsen said. “He finds exuberance in his character. It sounds like he has a heavy burden. He is given to exaggeration, and he is almost whimsical. He comes off as very intelligent and strong but sometimes seems like an absentminded professor.”

Dreamwell Theatre is performing an adaptation by Christopher Hampton (who wrote Atonement), which makes the production more of an actor’s play than just a literary work, she said.

Though the troupe is producing the play roughly 130 years after it was written, Toomsen and Burford say its themes will still resonate with audiences.

“It’s easy to say something is right, but we’re living this struggle all the time,” Toomsen said. “Each night, I see myself on both sides.”

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