Review | An Enemy of the People: a searing, must-see political thriller

Billy Carter (Tom Stockmann) and Ricardo Chavira (Peter Stockmann) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of An Enemy of the People. Photo by Dan Norman.

Copper pipes, venture capital, scientific ethics. Who knew combining these elements could make for stimulating, prescient drama? Brad Birch’s new adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen classic, An Enemy of the People, running through June 3 at the Guthrie, uses these components to pointedly explore the intersection of capitalism, democracy, and truth with depth and searing social commentary.

The must-see political pressure cooker centers around Tom Stockmann, a respected scientist serving as director of a new tourist venture in a mid-sized Norwegian city–the springs. His brother Peter is both company chairman and mayor of the city, having run for office promising economic prosperity as a result of the venture. Things fall apart when Tom discovers that the water in the springs is poisonous and must decide how to speak truth in the face of expansive repercussions for the city and his family.

Director Lyndsey Turner has smartly staged An Enemy of the People with a brisk pace and fluid scene transitions, lending itself to high-stakes drama. She has also assembled a fantastic team to carry her vision. Merle Hensel’s rotating set design and imposing mountain backdrop beautifully evoke the Scandinavian setting while also transforming from scene to scene in both subtle and surprising ways.

The lighting (by Jane Cox) effectively focuses the action and conjures up various moods, while Brenda Abbandandolo’s costumes timelessly realize both character and setting. The original music and sound design by artistic group Broken Chord powerfully kick off the proceedings and subtly punctuate important moments throughout.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Billy Carter lends urgency and believable conviction to Tom, and Ricardo Chavira’s portrayal of Peter is both shrewd and conflicted. Sarah Agnew powerfully captures Tom’s wife Kate with principled thoughtfulness, and Christian Bardin’s Petra conveys emotionally honesty as a young woman navigating her transition from youth to adulthood in the midst of her parents’ own massive dilemma. The small cast is rounded out with distinguished performances by J.C. Cutler as a local newspaper editor, Mo Perry as the paper’s determined reporter, Zachary Fine as Kate’s wealthy brother, and Zarif Kabier as a young writer staying with the Stockmanns as he works on his next novel.

The script smartly builds tension until its unsettling conclusion, and despite being reworked from material written originally in 1882 poses timely questions for audiences today. In questioning the resilience of democracy in the face of complacency, it charges its audience to elevate the importance of truth and resist the temptations of political shortcuts. It argues that if truth is twisted by those in power to serve the whims of an electorate, a populace may be helpless against the tides of pragmatism and what remains will soon bear little resemblance to democracy. In this moment, there could hardly be a better show or a more vital message to contemplate.

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