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September 28, 2012

Center Stage opens 50th season with revival of 'An Enemy of the People'

Walking into the Center Stage production of Arthur Miller’s “An Enemy of the People,” his adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen drama, is sort of like entering a swing state where voters are bombarded round the clock with negative political ads on TV.

Back and forth fly the attacks on honor and integrity, the attempts to claim ownership of the facts, the charges about who will be more responsible with the public’s money, who more likely to cause a tax increase.

Then with a seismic shudder, the whole darn state suddenly tips decisively to one side — and not the side you favor.

The intriguing Center Stage venture, the opening salvo in the company’s 50th anniversary season, seizes on the ever-contemporary issues in the play with an emphasis on media. The media for Ibsen in 1882 and Miller in his 1950 version was newspapers; here, it’s television.

Updated to 1960 and designed with a cool touch by Riccardo Hernandez, the staging suggests a live version of a TV show. That chic set and David Burdick’s “Mad Men”-worthy costumes provide a feast of black and white shades, streaked with the occasional, almost glaring touch of red.

In addition to vintage black-and-white footage shown on monitors and projected on the rear wall, live black-and-white video of the actors is used at key points. All of this visual reinforcement drives home just how, well, black and white the issues are at the heart of the play, which ...

concerns the water supply in a Norwegian town.

A doctor has discovered that the water has been disastrously polluted by run-off from a factory, threatening the town’s potential gold mine — a recently built spa that could attract a steady stream of money-spending visitors seeking the water’s supposedly restorative powers.

This being a prophet-in the-wilderness sort of story, the man with the warning, Dr. Stockmann, runs into plenty of trouble as he tries to warn his fellow citizens, starting with his brother, the stony, unyielding mayor, Peter Stockmann.

That mayor, who demonstrates formidable wagon-circling powers, is almost painfully contemporary. He’d be willing to tackle the crisis if it could be done “without financial sacrifice” (the Iraq War, anyone?). He’d happily accept free speech in ordinary times, but not extraordinary ones (Muhammad videos, anyone?). And why give the public new ideas when they should be perfectly satisfied with old ones?

The doctor gets a painful lesson in how easily majority rule can trump minority concerns, how fighting for the truth can leave you on a limb — with an ugly mob below.

If only Ibsen, or Miller, had figured out a way to argue this Good-vs.-Evil case in a less aggressive, obvious and reiterative manner. For all of its noble intentions and heated discussions, “An Enemy of the People” does run on, and it can be a bit of a bore, which the plethora of gray tones in the Center Stage production does not entirely alleviate.

But there’s no denying the provocative ideas and ever-timely nature of the play, which, coincidentally, just opened on Broadway in a revival featuring Richard Thomas.

For Center Stage, artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah has assembled a competent cast — in colorblind fashion, which adds an intriguing layer to such a political play — and he directs the action with generally effective momentum.

This is not one of the more cohesive or involving efforts of recent years, but the visual side of things certainly gives it style.

As Dr. Stockmann, Dion Graham doesn’t summon quite the gravitas to create a mesmerizing figure, and he gets a little too let-the-hands-do-the-expressing at times. But he limns the character’s mix of sincerity, bravery and unabashed egotism (the one flaw that makes things even tougher on the doctor).

Kevin Kilner has the whole haughty demeanor down pat as the mayor, without slipping into caricature. And when emotions flair, the actor makes the anger real and revealing — this magistrate may not have a reinforced steel spine after all. Kilner’s makes the brief display of vulnerability speak volumes.

Susan Rome offers a telling portrayal of the doctor’s wife, torn between standing behind her man and stepping in front to divert his attention back to their threatened family. As the doctor’s daughter, Charise Castro Smith could use a little more personality to make up for the character’s mostly stiff lines.

There are engaging contributions from Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, as the morally slippery newspaper editor Hovstad; and Wilbur Edwin Henry, as the equally evasive, moderation-seeking publisher Aslaksen. Jeffrey Kuhn jumps vividly into the role of Billing, an assistant editor all too eager for revolution, unless it gets in the way of his chances for advancement. And Ross Bickell does a beautifully nuanced job as the doctor’s doubting father-in-law.

John Ahlin is a good fit for the stalwart Captain Horster. Jimi Kinstle, as the drunk who crashes a highly-charged town meeting, is given free rein; his appearance is more comic bludgeoning than relief. (The seemingly oblivious character may be smarter than the mob, but he needn't be quite so over-the-top.)

The production does not overcome the weaker elements in the play, and some aspects of the imaginative staging raise questions (showing clips of the Nixon-Kennedy debates might be a little more compelling if the play weren’t still set in Norway).

Ultimately, though, Center Stage provides a welcome reminder of some fundamental political and philosophical points always worth considered, especially in a hotly fought election season.

"An Enemy of the People" runs through Oct. 21.

PHOTOS BY RICHARD ANDERSON
Posted by Tim Smith at 3:36 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Center Stage, Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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