Without power what good is the truth? To celebrate the opening of its 50th Anniversary Season, CENTERSTAGE presents Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s classic An Enemy of the People. Directed by Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, this particularly adaptation acts as a lens through which we examine the contemporary media landscape in regards to topical political problems in today’s society. The problems addressed in this production echo soundly to many of the modern issues we see in politics: corruption, the truth of one man’s beliefs verses the betterment of the masses, ignorance in positions of power and so on. Ibsen’s riveting saga pits brother against brother in an effort to save a community from a deadly secret each having their own beliefs as to what constitutes protection. Ultimately turning the town inward upon itself this gripping drama will keep you shocked right through the end.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah sets the style of the translation against the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates, taking cues from that moment in history when live television forever changed the political landscape. However, Kwei-Armah’s choice of setting and styles in regards to the adaptation becomes, at times, muddled and unclear throughout the performance. He’s setting us back in time with the very simplistic more formal and traditional dresses for the female characters and humble furniture with no accoutrements or echoes of the modern world – and yet the mannerisms, gestures, even speech patterns of the performers often sound and appear as present day actions. The choice not to adapt the cast’s accents to that of their location would be less confusing if Kwei-Armah had chosen to then adapt the few strong words that notify you of the location.
Both leading brothers speech and argumentation patterns ring true to the tune of American politics, Peter’s echoing Nixon in a defensive manner while Tom’s echoes a more radically charged Martin Luther King Jr. seeking truth without judgment and to make himself be heard. With this American style choice the production’s location gets muddled as they refer to money in crowns and sailing to America to escape the situation. Fortunately these choices are mostly forgotten as the action heats up in the second act, as the principle characters becoming so deeply involved in their side of the argument.
This political drama really drives home the finer points of corruption in power and reminds everyone what great lengths an individual can go to if they are firm in their beliefs to expose the truth, regardless of the cost. The group of actors cast for this production bring a level of raw talent to the performance that is both engaging and compelling, keeping you on the edge of your seat with interest in their stories, which is particularly key as the first act has a slow but momentous build to its pacing.
The two men of the liberal paper create the perfect flip-flop for this show as they continue to do what is best for the readers. Aslaksen (Wilbur Edwin Henry) and Hovstad (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) create a unique dynamic between themselves and their interactions with the Doctor. Henry as the cowardly middleman ends up being quite comical, providing that punctuated moment of relief when tensions are building too quickly. His deadpan approach to supporting one side or the other mixes well with his non-existent sense of humor and this makes for a rather quirky and amusing coward of a character.
Henderson is the most pivotal character we see created outside of the two brothers. He starts off young and headstrong with ideas that rumble of revolution. But the moment he’s threatened or forced to see things in a different light he flips over faster than a burning hot cake on the griddle. As this turncoat character, Henderson drives a good deal of the action in scenes with the Doctor giving him great material to spark responses from.
Holding their own in this male dominated script are Catherine (Susan Rome) and Petra (Charise Castro Smith). Wife and daughter to the doctor respectively these women are not without their opinions. Rome is at first against her husband’s exposure of the truth until she finds him challenged unfavorably. Quick as lightning she sharpens her tongue and her approach to defending his notions of truth. Smith, while quieter in her role, has the same tenacity of her character’s mother, only using her staunch physical stance to show it when she storms out of the print office after a conflict with the copy-editors.
The whole play boils down to the heated and intense conflicts that fly constantly back and forth between the Mayor Peter Stockmann (Kevin Kilner) and the town Doctor (Dion Graham) the mayor’s brother. From the moment they first encounter one another you can tell the tensions run deep. At first its playful banter but when the real issue breaks out it becomes a deadly battle of slander and struggle for freedom of speech.
Kilner is almost made villainous in his approach to silence his brother, driving the masses of society to turn on him. He resonates the epitome of political corruption – power without purpose – in his sheer stance alone. Strutting like a mafia don onto the stage with his baton and elegant hat his image alone is enough to strike an unsettling loathing and twinge of fear into the audience. He becomes the frightening spitting image of Nixon when he’s at the podium with his black and white image projected behind him, preaching to the masses with conviction, his voice echoing with the tinny backlash of the microphone. Kilner is more than suited for the role and gives a stellar and convincing performance.
Graham is equally impressive playing opposite this corrupt figure. He is grounded in his beliefs and this is reflected not only in the vehemence with which he speaks but also in the firm stances he takes physically, every muscle in his body taut and straining for justice and truth to prevail. Graham sticks to his guns and never once waivers in his convictions, never showing a weakness, and playing up those strengths to inspire uncertainty and fear in the people as well as in Peter’s character. Graham has a fierce passion behind his motivations and his performance matches Kilner’s in intensity every step of the way. Together these two men keep the audience in rapt attention right to the very last moment of the show.
There are some people that money just can’t buy, and while you may not be able to buy your beliefs, you can buy a ticket to see An Enemy of the People at CENTERSTAGE this fall season.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.