Broadway/Off-Broadway Review

Enemy, Fish: Social Issues on Stage

In Sam Gold’s electrifying revival of Henrik Ibsen’s classic social drama An Enemy of the People, Jeremy Strong of Succession fame as the idealistic Dr. Thomas Stockman tells his daughter Petra (a sterling Victoria Pedretti) that they should consider moving from 19th century Norway to the US since the persecution they have been experiencing wouldn’t happen there. This optimistic line is greeted with hearty skeptical laughter by the audience at Circle in the Square. This response shows that Ibsen’s play is as relevant now as when it premiered in 1882.

Enemy of the People
Victoria Pedretti, Caleb Eberhardt, and Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People.
Credit: Emilio Madrid

The dilemma facing Dr. Stockman is one that a contemporary scientist could be encountering or one that a free-thinking citizen of 1950 may have been subjected to when Arthur Miller adapted the play just before red-baiting McCarthyism overtook the national landscape. The conscientious Stockman has discovered the waters of the soon-to-open spa in his small town are dangerously polluted and will cause illness and possible death. He advocates closing the spa and making extensive renovations. But when their livelihoods are threatened, all of the established authority figures, including his brother the mayor (a properly pompous Michael Imperioli), as well as “liberal” journalists and “moderate” tradespeople unite to shut him down, or even “cancel” him. Their arguments of discrediting scientific research sound remarkably like the voices raised against the veracity of climate change.

Ibsen’s theme of the individual standing up against corrupt forces in society resonates today as the mob violently raises to silence Stockman and label him as an enemy because he dares to speak inconvenient truths. The metaphor of the poisoned waters applies to the moral rot of almost everyone in the town. Amy Herzog’s idiomatic new adaptation feels modern without being jarring, just as her version of A Doll’s House did last season. Gold’s staging is immediate and intimate with the oval of Circle In the Square transformed into an arena of ethics. The design team dots creates an authentic-feeling 19th century space with lighting seemingly only by candles, designed by Isabella Byrd.

An Enemy of the People
Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People.
Credit: Emilio Madrid

In the third act when Stockman faces the stubborn opposition of reactionary forces in a raucous town hall, the house lights remain up and members of the audience sit on stage, providing the play with its dramatic highlight. The action is right in our laps and it feels incredibly real. The barbaric actions of the townspeople are especially shattering when contrasted with feel-good atmosphere of drinks and folk music generated by the onstage intermission that immediately precedes them.

An Enemy of the People
Victoria Pedretti and Jeremy Strong in An Enemy of the People.
Credit: Emilio Madirid

Jeremy Strong wisely does not play up Stockman’s nobility, but subtly suggests his innate idealism and naivete when the doctor initially believes his news will be greeted with thanks and enthusiasm for preventing a potential ecological and humanitarian crisis. He skillfully chronicles growing disillusion and anger when he sees his fellow townspeople for what they really are. Victoria Pedretti delivers a simplistic and radiant Petra without being cloying or sentimental. Michael Imperioli blusters with conviction as the self-important mayor.

Caleb Eberhart and Matthew August Jeffers as liberal journalists, Thomas Jay Ryan as a representative of the working people and David Patrick Kelly as Stockman’s father-in-law, gradually and almost imperceptibly transform from reasonable citizens to venal creatures of the jungle, reinforcing Ibsen’s frighteningly relevant theme that anyone can be made into an Enemy of the People.

Margaret Odette, Torre Alexandre and Rachel Leslie in Fish.
Credit: Valerie Terranova Photography

Like Ibsen, contemporary playwright Kia Corthron addresses social issues with precision, compassion and boldness. In previous plays she has taken on police violence (Force Continuum), the cycle of poverty and prison (Breath, Boom; Cage Rhythm), industrial pollution (Safe Box), environmental issues (Splash Hatch on the E Going Down), and the overmedication of children and teens (Seeking the Genesis). In her latest work, Fish, co-produced by Keen Company and the Working Theater at Theater Four, Corthron tackles the broken public education system and how it impacts the African-American community.

Corthron takes on numerous aspects of schools in America as she follows the torturous senior year of Latricia, nicknamed Tree (luminous Toree Alexandre) whose mother is in prison so she must care for her younger brother Zay (mischievous Josiah Gaffney). We also follow the story of Tree’s new English teacher Ms. Harris (powerful Rachel Leslie), surviving a testing scandal and making do with little support or supplies. Through these two protagonists, Corthron explores charter versus public schools, gun violence, teacher burnout, standardized testing, the lack of arts programs, and numerous other issues.

Josiah Gaffney and Torée Alexandre in Fish.
Credit: Valerie Terranova Photography

The title is taken from the proverb about giving a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach him how to fish and he’ll survive for a lifetime. It’s a searing indictment of incompetence and underfunding. There are moments when Corthron hurls statistics at us and the human drama is lost, but Fish is a strong play, deeply felt and performed. Adrienne D. Williams’s staging is well-paced and keeps the action moving. The cast goes way beyond stereotypes and facts to create believable people caught in a system beyond their control. In addition to those already mentioned, Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew is strikingly sympathetic as Tree’s best friend LaRonda, especially when she tries to explain to Ms. Harris she has troubles of her own. Jason Simms designed the versatile set which suggests classroom and apartments. Both Fish and An Enemy of the People bracingly challenge theatergoers to confront flaws in our current world, something all important plays should do.

An Enemy of the People: March 18—June 16. Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th St., NYC. Running time: two hours with a ten-minute pause.

Fish: April 2—20. Keen Company and Working Theater at Theater Four, Theater Row 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. Running time: one hour and 45 mins. with no intermission. Theatre Row

What are you looking for?