Jack Firneno, the Wire
After a preview of An Enemy of the People last week at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, a young girl said the play reminded her of when she was in kindergarten. The group she was in had to use the swings because the group with more people than hers wanted to use the slide.
“I was worried about adults getting it — and here this girl outlined the whole play!” laughed co-director Susan Atkinson later.
Of course, playing fair at recess isn’t the subject of Henrik Ibsen’s play. It certainly wasn’t even what Atkinson had in mind when she helped choose and direct the production this year.
But to her — and to a little girl who remembers being outnumbered and defeated — the idea is still the same.
“It’s anywhere people take things that are obviously scientifically true and ignore them because they’re not economically desirable,” said Atkinson. “Sadly, I think it’s current, some 100 years later.”
Written in 1882 in Norway, An Enemy of the People follows a local doctor who uncovers a possible toxic contamination in the public health baths — a discovery that could endanger his small town’s sole industry. As he tries to generate awareness and a solution to the problem, his brother, the mayor, launches a counter-attack that quickly gains popularity among the townspeople.
Co-directed by Atkinson and Amy Kaissar, it’s playing at the Bristol Riverside Theatre through May 31.
Of course, the sanitation of public baths isn’t a major health issue today. But global warming is a worldwide concern, and the underground drilling process known as fracking is the topic of a raging debate, especially in Pennsylvania.
There’s also an emphasis on the power of the press in the play, which reminds Atkinson of the power wielded by media moguls or behind-the-scenes influential figures like Rupert Murdoch or the Koch Brothers today. And, at talk-backs after preview performances, audience members brought up current whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.
“The parallels are frightening,” said Atkinson. There’s also a parallel, she noted, to how money affects the way these concerns play out both today and in Ibsen’s 19th-century work.
“All of those questions, when it comes to the realm of having impact of economics, it completely changes the scene.”
Those questions point to why Enemy is still performed and why Atkinson decided on the less-common adaptation the Riverside used. It’s also why this production is the second at the theater to use a community ensemble of laypeople from Bucks County working alongside professional actors.
Many theaters use an adaptation of Enemy from the 1950s by famed playwright Arthur Miller. Atkinson chose a newer translation by Brian Johnston and Rick Davis that she says is much closer to the original Norwegian text.
“There’s artistic input in the Miller version, his point of view and points he was making for his time,” she explained. The version at the Riverside, rather, “goes back to the 1882 version, exactly what Ibsen was saying.”
Both versions have their merits, Atkinson stressed, but using the closer adaptation revealed some timeless aspects of the piece that play out for better or worse. She recalled, for instance, a recent report she read about chemicals polluting the groundwater in parts of Pennsylvania.
“They said the chemical is used in fracking but they can’t definitely say that’s where it came from,” she explained. “Just the way they worded it, it’s almost exactly the same verbiage as in Enemy.”
And, some of those words will be spoken at the Riverside by people who live and work in Bucks County. This is the second Riverside production to use a community ensemble of non-actors in Bucks County to perform alongside seasoned thespians.
It’s a trend that’s becoming popular nationwide, and one that fits this production — and with it Bristol Borough specifically — well.
“I look for plays with a local bent, one that involves a town and community,” said Atkinson. This one — where the townspeople themselves are a collective force and the crowd scenes offer plenty of distinct parts — was a perfect fit.
“It’s particularly interesting for Bristol,” she continued, noting how the play and the borough share similarities. “It takes place in a small town, and all small towns tend to have similar issues.”
The community ensemble “energizes” the production, said Atkinson. “They bring practical experience whereas theater professionals tend to become kind of isolated,” she admitted. “They notice things that those of us who have been doing this for a very long time don’t.”
And that, said Atkinson, is what theater does best: “We outline a problem and make it real to people.”
Of course, talking about a problem is different from solving it — “These questions are beyond me, that’s why I’m not into politics. It’s easier just to talk about them,” she jokes — but it’s still an important part of the process.
“I happen to be a very positive person. I like to think that no matter what problem is there, human beings can actually think of solutions and not just wallow in it,” offered Atkinson.
True, she conceded, sometimes they do wallow in them, or ignore them long enough for the next generation to handle them. But if a theater production can bring them to light, and get people thinking about them, it’s at least a start.
“That’s our job,” she explained. “To point out the life around us, and what’s happening, and man’s position in it.”
An Enemy of the People is playing at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol, now through May 31. For information or tickets, call 215.785.0100 or visit www.brtstage.org.