More than 100 years after Henrik Ibsen scalded callow, self-serving conformists in “An Enemy of the People,” the play has been revived with surging, topical vitality in an Americanized adaptation by Arthur Miller.
Dynamically directed by Jack O’Brien, with a burnished performance by John Glover as a heroic town doctor isolated by his zeal, the KCET production for “American Playhouse” is buoyant, even comically human. It airs tonight at 9 on Channels 28 and 15.
Miller, a kindred spirit of the social moralist Ibsen, originally adapted this play in 1950 for the famed actor Fredric March, who was being stigmatized as a Red at the time, in a direct response to the Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The theme of the loneliness of truth, of one man standing up to the fearful mob, is the drama’s classic linchpin. But now the play’s brackish tale of industrial pollution makes the work relevant on a level that earlier audiences could not have felt.
Miller’s newest tinkering has moved Ibsen’s plot from a Norwegian town to a seacoast resort in Maine in the 1890s. The transition to small-town America could not be more hospitable. For a case study in cowardice, hypocrisy and greed, the production rustles like the wind.
The show opens with the deceptive gleam of a joyous postcard. The town’s physician, his merry wife, children and colleagues are celebrating the doctor’s discovery of bacteria in the town’s mineral baths from a nearby tannery. The happy scientist will trumpet the great news to the world, save tourists from the poisonous springs and be a hero! No honorary dinner, please.
When he does break the news, the town wants his head.
Glover’s boyish and bombastic Dr. Stockman, who loses everything because he does the right thing, is the quintessential scientist with tunnel vision who doesn’t understand people enough to know he’s putting his head in a noose.
He’s a “holy fool,” as Miller calls him in a not-to-be-missed, on-camera interview with the playwright that follows the end-credits.
The production’s achievement is that it turns what is often staged as a statuesque “problem” play into a throbbing character drama. George Grizzard, particularly, is a terrific foil as the protagonist’s older brother and town mayor intent on preserving the baths--rashes and intestinal ailments be damned--for the town’s livelihood. Grizzard’s irascibility, as opposed to stereotyped oafishness, gives the production sharp counterweight.
The meeting hall showdown between the doctor and the townspeople is painfully raucous and bizarrely comical. Blistering are Glover’s battles with the town’s phony liberals at the local newspaper, The Progressive (Robert Easton’s queasy publisher and Byron Jennings’s turncoat editor).
At the gritty, unruly fade-out, with the swamp of humanity outside the noble doctor’s window clamoring “Enemy!” Glover’s determination becomes a darkening obsession: “We’re fighting for the truth!” he exhorts his huddled children and staunch wife (Valerie Mahaffey). “The strong must learn to be lonely.”
Ibsen, in his anger at smug self-righteousness, meant that. But as an artist he also saw the incipient fanatic’s narrow view of truth. This production captures that, too.
In the filmed afterword with Miller, the playwright tells how the owners of a spa in Switzerland went to jail a few years ago for running a polluted spring where guests, as if in a page out of Ibsen’s play, died from typhoid. (For that matter, Ibsen himself got the idea for his play in 1881 from a newspaper report he had read.)
Outside his Connecticut home, Miller grins lamentably. He bemoans acid rain, retreating forests and his property’s vanishing blue jays. “It’s questionable (what we have learned). I wonder if we learn anything about anything.”