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Great Minds Out of Mongrels

March 19, 2010

“You should never wear you best pants when you fight for freedom and truth.”

I learned that lesson Thursday during the opening night production of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” The production in Overture Center’s Playhouse was mounted by Aquila Theatre, a traveling troupe founded in London in 1991 that now calls New York City home.

“Enemy” is latest in a season-long attempt by Overture to fill the performance space vacated when the Madison Rep collapsed. It’s also a clear reminder of how good theater can be and how much some of us miss it.

The story, in short, rings like a modern day parable even though the play was first performed in 1883. A small community is betting its future and a lot of development dollars on the healing properties of the local waters and their ability to attract tourists to a newly built and highly expensive spa. But spa medical director Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Damian Davis), brother to Mayor Peter Stockmann (James Lavender) and the original champion of the spa, discovers that the waters are full of bacteria due to run-off from a local factory owned by his mother-in-law Mortine Kiil (Lucy Black). Dr. Stockmann wants to break the news with the help of local newspaper editor Hovstead (Owen Young) in the interest of preventing sickness and savings lives, but Mayor Stockmann, who is chairmen of the spa board, wants to suppress the news, fearing that it will keep tourists away and economically ruin the town.

You can guess what happens from there. And if this all sounds familiar, realize that the concept served as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Unfortunately, bacteria are a lot less cinematic than a Great White Shark.

What makes the play engaging is that Dr. Stockmann’s struggle to represent the greater good in the face of a community’s overwhelming self-interest is a theme that today has even greater ramifications than it might have in the 19th century, particularly in terms of its ecological overtones. Author Ibsen takes it to the next level with Stockman’s realization that the true pollution exists not only in the water, but in the minds and hearts of the townspeople, mixing scientific empiricism that was emerging at the time with a humanistic compassion to do the right thing for the right reasons regardless of cost.

And by the end of the play, the cost to Stockmann, his wife Katrine (Leandra Ashton) and daughter Petra (Lauren Davis, perhaps the only American in an all-British cast) runs pretty high. Stockmann, deprived of all other opportunities, vows to open a private school to teach homeless children to be free thinkers, making “great minds from mongrels.” Yeah, maybe.

Each performer does an excellent job inhabiting his or her role, and the acting is what carries the drama past any rough patches in the text. Davis may snap his fingers a few too many times when making his points, but he inhabits his role as compassionate physician with an insightful fury. As the mayor, Lavender brings a certain pathos and vulnerability to his particular brand of evil, clearly reflecting the anxiety of the two viewpoints with which he has to grapple. All others do fine jobs giving their characters individual faces well beyond the roles they occupy.

Madison still has fine theater groups, both professional and not, but Aquila Theatre’s product of “An Enemy of the People” gives us a rare opportunity to see just how compelling theater can be when done by the right troupe for the right reasons.

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