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The Enemy Within

Center Stage’s season-launching show examines the power of the crowd

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Kevin Kilner, Wilbur Edwin Henry, and Dion Graham in CENTERSTAGE’s production of An Enemy of the People by Arthur Miller, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen; directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah.


An Enemy of the People

By Arthur Miller, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen

At Center Stage through Oct. 21

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, a kind of fable about one man standing up against powerful interests and an easily swayed mob to tell the truth about a Norwegian town’s water system, is often staged in teeth-gnashing fashion. But director Kwame Kwei-Armah has wisely given the current Center Stage production a healthy dose of irreverent humor, and that transforms Ibsen’s play from a stern lecture into a delicious story.

In this changeover Kwei-Armah gets a lot of help from Arthur Miller, the late American playwright who called his 1950 version of An Enemy of the People an “adaptation” rather than a translation. Miller not only recast Ibsen’s language into American dialect but also trimmed considerable fat from the text and sharpened the conflicts. With less speechifying on stage, Ibsen’s latent humor comes to the fore, and Kwei-Armah’s terrific cast makes the most of it.

At the end of the second act, for example, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Dion Graham), the scientist who has discovered E. coli in the waters of the town’s top tourist attraction, a health spa, has called a meeting to explain his findings after the local paper has refused to publish them. In a large empty room with nothing more than an upended trunk as a dais, Tom prepares to give a heroic speech. But before he can, he’s interrupted by one laughable surprise after another. These comic bits shed as much light on the play’s themes as the more sober passages.

A nameless drunk (Jimi Kinstle) stumbles into the meeting and demands the right to vote, even though it’s not a polling station. His disorientation is funny enough, but when he shouts, “There’s no law says a man who’s drunk can’t vote,” he’s inadvertently commenting on a crowd intoxicated by mob justice. The line—it’s not in the Ibsen original—is one of Miller’s many inventions to make the play less of a philosophical debate and more of a street-corner argument.

Tom is about to start speaking when the newspaper publisher, Aslaksen (Wilbur Edwin Henry), insists that the meeting elects a chairman. Never mind that this is a private hall lent to Tom for his lecture, the crowd demands a chairman. It’s funny enough that Tom’s political opponents would have the brass to try this gambit; it’s even funnier that the always-too-nice doctor goes along with it. Aslaksen becomes chairman and decides the first to speak should be Mayor Peter Stockmann (Kevin Kilner), Tom’s brother, who also represents the commercial interests behind the spa. It’s as if Mitt Romney showed up at a Barack Obama campaign rally and took over the microphone.

It is, in some ways, an apt analogy. Kilner is a tall white man in expensive suits and neatly combed hair who speaks in smiling bromides that never quite square with the facts. Graham, by contrast, is an African-American with a trimmed afro and rumpled clothes who, in his effort to be accommodating, is often taken advantage of. Before long, the charismatic Peter has called for a vote on whether Tom should be allowed to speak at all.

These two leading actors are key to this production’s triumph. With his gold-topped cane and stiff posture, Kilner portrays Peter as a pompous ass when he visits his brother’s parlor, jutting his jaw and stabbing his finger at Tom. But in public, Peter beams with reassurance and reason, seducing the townspeople into trusting the powers that be. By contrast, Graham makes Tom a bon vivant at home, praising his children, welcoming visitors with drinks. In public, however, Tom’s bumbling efforts to be subtle and reasonable undermine the points he’s trying to make. He’s a scientist, not a politician.

When Peter claims that Tom’s attacks on the health spa are motivated by sibling rivalry, he’s not entirely wrong. With their snide asides and exasperated shouts, the two actors give the animosity between the brothers a raw edge. The actors, along with Kwei-Armah and Miller, are reminding us that science and politics are always more than a battle of pure ideas; messy emotions are always mixed in.

The production is set not in Ibsen’s late 19th century Norway but in Miller’s mid-20th century America. The stage is surrounded by five vintage TV sets showing old clips of the Nixon-Kennedy debates and live-action details that might not be obvious in the balcony. The furniture seems to have been ordered from a 1958 Sears catalog and the actors are dressed in plaid, pleated skirts and loose gray cardigans. It all adds up to a clever conceit that neither enhances nor damages the production very much.

Much more important is the humor that’s injected into every relationship. Catherine (Susan Rome) comes off at first as Tom’s perfect, loyal wife but soon we find her nagging, correcting, and cautioning him even as she retains the wifely mask. Her father, Morten Kiil (Ross Bickell), seems a doddering old fool at first but eventually emerges as a dangerous plotter. Hovstad and Billing (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson and Jeffrey Kuhn) are crusading liberal journalists who rationalize every compromise and surrender they make. Like much of the show, these rationalizations are as funny as they are infuriating.

The show is also notable for Kwei-Armah’s ongoing effort to recast Center Stage as a true Baltimore theater. The leads both have local roots: Kilner is a Hopkins grad and Graham played State’s Attorney Rupert Bond on The Wire. More importantly, Rome and Kinstle are longtime Baltimore actors, getting their biggest roles yet at Center Stage.

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