Environmental political dramas may seem a relatively recent phenomenon, but Dr. Thomas Stockmann was a whistle-blower over a century before Erin Brockovich made it cool.
Stockmann is the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play "An Enemy of the People," which the Hilberry Theatre Company will perform in repertory beginning Friday. When Stockmann discovers that the popular public baths in his town are contaminated, he comes into conflict with his brother Peter, the town's mayor. With a vested financial interest in keeping the baths open, Peter works to turn the local press — and the community at large — against Thomas.
Blair Anderson, director of the Hilberry production, says Ibsen has long been on his directorial "wish list" because the Norwegian playwright's work still has "tremendous resonance to our contemporary society." He says "Enemy" confronts the idea that majority rule is always best.
"There are times when the solitary voice is ignored," Anderson says in an email exchange. "Whistle-blowers are ostracized as much today as they were in the 1880s. It may not be as shocking today as it was on the cusp of the 20th century, but if one does stop and think, it can still be upsetting to really see how political, economic and educational decisions are made today."
Anderson observes that while Ibsen is most often noted for his controversial social commentaries, the truly memorable characters in his plays are often overlooked.
"Actors can't play 'themes' or 'social issues,'" Anderson says. "Ibsen has written complex, fallible characters and it's always challenging to bring them to life. The plays are modern classics mostly because the characters are so full of human strengths and weaknesses."
For the Wayne State University theater graduate students in the cast, the play's dense language and heavy tone posed a unique challenge. Brandy Joe Plambeck, who plays Thomas Stockmann, had previously performed primarily in lighter, more contemporary pieces. He says working on "Enemy" has been "fun and very challenging."
"It is translated by Arthur Miller, who wrote 'The Crucible' and 'Death of a Salesman,' so it's definitely a little easier language than some other translations of the play," Plambeck says. "But it still presents the challenges of being a period piece and the language not being quite as modern and contemporary as you're used to."
Brandon Grantz, who plays Peter Stockmann in the production, says he too relished the opportunity to dig into Ibsen's language as well as the show's complicated themes. Although Grantz plays the ostensible villain of the piece, he says the play is compelling because Ibsen gives Peter's motives just as much weight and legitimacy as Thomas.' He says the political and moral issues Ibsen raises remain thorny as ever because the playwright refuses a simple, one-sided approach.
"Somebody asked me the other day, 'So who is the enemy of the people?'" Grantz says. "And I laughed and I was just like, 'They both are.' Even the people are an enemy of the people sometimes."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
'An Enemy of the People'
2 p.m. Feb. 21, Feb. 25 and March 28; 8 p.m. Feb. 20-21, Feb. 26-28 and March 26-28
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit