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Ibsen's political classic could've been written last week
We all know how easy it is to ignore an inconvenient truth. Think of the politicians who deny climate change, a phenomenon almost universally accepted by the scientific community.
As it happens, it is that very issue that inspired writer Seth Barrish and director K. Lorrel Manning to adapt An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play.
Set in southern Norway, the drama follows Dr. Thomas Stockmann, an esteemed scientist and family man. The coastal town where he lives has prospered of late, thanks in large part to its baths, which attract ailing travelers hoping to relax and recuperate.
But shortly after the play opens, Stockmann announces he has made a grave discovery. Harmful bacteria have contaminated the water system, and as a result, the town's sick visitors ironically risk their health by using the baths meant to restore them.
When Stockmann's brother, the mayor, catches wind of how much it would cost to cleanse the water, he does everything he can to stop the study's publication.
For The Barrow Group's adaptation, which runs through April 1, Barrish and Manning have taken steps both to specify and legitimize the doctor's claims.
For instance, they've changed the contaminate from bacteria to chromium. Ingesting that particular element can lead to kidney and liver failure. "If I hear [about] bacteria infesting water, it's easy for me to rationalize it and go, 'Well, there's bacteria everywhere,'" says Barrish. "[Chromium] is a real threat, not just a general thing that you can rationalize away."
How did they find their new chemical culprit? In Ibsen's script, the local tannery is responsible for poisoning the baths. After a bit of research, Barrish learned that tanneries have leaked chromium into water systems before.
The chemical was as much of a menace in Ibsen's day, says Barrish, although it went by the name of chromic sulfate, which is what the doctor calls it in the script.
Barrish and Manning have moreover added a new detail to bolster Stockmann's discovery: Three independent firms corroborate his findings.
"[Stockmann] does as much research as he can before he makes a claim," says Manning. "So it doesn't make sense for him to get one set of numbers and then go running around town saying, 'This place is poisoned.' He wants to hear from everyone he possibly can."
"It's not fake news," Barrish quips.
In addition, Barrish and Manning make it absolutely clear that Stockmann has the public weal in mind. When he visits the socialist newspaper that will publish his report, he encourages its editor to focus on the baths and keep him, the discoverer, out of the spotlight. Lest he seem self-interested, the scientist maintains that career advancement has never crossed his mind.
In the original, Stockmann comes off a bit less earnest and a bit more egotistical. By strengthening his claims and purifying his intentions, Barrish and Manning make it easy to trust him. Which means it hurts worse to hear his neighbors boo the truth.
If you've ever read the original or seen another adaptation, you know that Stockmann's revelation has dire consequences for his career. "He's putting his own livelihood at stake for the greater good," Manning says. "If this was my situation, and I was putting my livelihood, my job, my career, everything at stake for the good of humanity, what would I do? Hopefully, the audience will ask themselves that big question."
Writer and dramaturg Gavin Whitehead is a regular contributor to TDF Stages.
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