An Enemy of the People

Raven Theatre

Seeking the Genesis

Goodman Theatre Studio

By Adam Langer

It’s all well and good to use characters as stick figures to represent opposing political views for stimulating discussions in high school civics classes, which is why Shaw’s and Ibsen’s more polemical works are still read. But sophisticated theater audiences need more depth and ambiguity if politically charged drama is to resonate on anything more than an intellectual level.

What ultimately cripples Arthur Miller’s 1950 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and to a lesser degree Kia Corthron’s Seeking the Genesis, two right-minded and well-written dramas about the literal and figurative poisoning of society, is each author’s tendency to simplify issues and to allow blatantly stated opinion to overwhelm the characters’ lives. This is a shame, since in this era of smart-ass nihilism and sitcom vacuousness masquerading as drama we could use some theater with a moral spine. But just because plays are easy to agree with doesn’t make them compelling to watch.

Of the two, An Enemy of the People is more the traditional “well made” play. Its internal architecture is flawless, its conflicts astutely rendered, its characters clearly defined, its philosophy well argued, its language inherently theatrical and urgent. There’s your protagonist, the high-minded, naive Dr. Stockmann, who discovers that the source of his Norwegian resort town’s springs are filled with deadly pollutants. There’s your antagonist, Stockmann’s brother Peter, the pragmatic town mayor who urges his brother to keep silent so that the city will remain happy and solvent. There are conflicts pitting brother against brother, one man against a town, one man’s private responsibilities to his family against his public duty. And of course there are the familiar dilemmas–whether to be moral or practical, to speak with conviction or moderation, to be a lone voice shouting in the wilderness or a truckler bowing to the tyranny of the majority. A perfect choice for the Intro to Theater syllabus. Sandwich it between Mrs. Warren’s Profession and All My Sons. Use it in the Arthur Miller unit to show how Ibsen influenced Miller–how Dr. Stockmann begat John Proctor in The Crucible, how the feuding Stockmann brothers begat the two brothers in The Price, how the literal broken glass on Dr. Stockmann’s floor became the memories of shattered shop windows on Kristallnacht in Broken Glass. Just don’t expect it to provide a terribly thought-provoking evening of theater.

This isn’t to demean the talents of Ibsen and Miller, who are among the most brilliant moral voices of the modern stage, but the two of them together amount to something approaching morality overdose. Every point in An Enemy of the People is clearly telegraphed, particularly in Raven Theatre’s didactic, by-the-book production. There’s never a moment of uncertainty about who’s right and who’s wrong. When Dr. Stockmann gathers his children around him at the end of act one, promising to teach them “what a man is,” there’s no trace of irony.

Peter Stockmann’s assertion that “the public doesn’t need new ideas; the public is better off with old ideas” is meant to be ironic, but this production seems to have taken it to heart. Under Michael Menendian’s solid if bland direction the competent actors at Raven drive home every easily digested point. Characters stand stiffly at opposite sides of the stage and rail against one another. Fingers jab the air. Fists are punched skyward. Men with fingers tucked into vests stalk the stage enunciating perfectly and projecting at occasionally uncomfortable decibel levels. The most intriguing and deeply textured performance comes from Bill McGough as Peter Stockmann, but the script is so clearly stacked against him that his efforts to gain sympathy for his character are largely futile.

We may feel self-satisfied consistently rooting for the one just man in the jungle of corrupt baboons, but that’s a sign of what’s most troubling about the play–that it argues vehemently against the tyranny of the majority while presenting an argument that’s meant to garner universal approval. In this two-dimensional world Ibsen and Miller allow for no opposition or middle ground. On one side is the absolute morality of the playwright and by extrapolation the audience, and on the other is the ignorance of the rabble. Would that things were so easy.

Poison of a different sort provides the moral dilemma at the heart of Kia Corthron’s Seeking the Genesis. Corthron uses the drug Ritalin, often prescribed to focus the attention of and sedate hyperactive children, to represent the white establishment’s attempts to control the lives of poor inner-city African-Americans. Her play is messier than the immaculately structured An Enemy of the People, but in the Goodman’s world premiere it’s far more resonant and compelling. This is partly because of its contemporary subject matter and partly because of its stellar cast, led by the magnificent Ora Jones as C Ana, a deeply conflicted mother who grudgingly allows her overly enthusiastic son Kite to undergo drug treatment so he won’t turn out like her older son Justin, a gangbanger whose learning disability went untreated. Corthron’s work falters only when she refuses to trust her audience to make its own judgments and telegraphs her moral and political standpoints at the expense of plot, character, and credibility.

To its credit, Seeking the Genesis is an intellectually challenging work with a surfeit of issues and ideas. Setting her drama in and around an urban housing project, Corthron uses her playwright’s pulpit to attack the country’s separate but unequal educational system, the complex allure of gang life, racist medical experiments in eugenics, and the white mainstream’s role in subjugating the black community. The most effective moments in the play are the all-too-realistic depictions of C Ana’s home life, where violence, cockroaches, gunfire, unemployment, hunger, and poverty conspire to make raising children nearly impossible.

Under the direction of Walter Dallas, the intricacies of C Ana’s relationships with her children are depicted in exquisite detail, and made all the more engaging by mature and heartfelt performances from ten-year-old Raphael Chestang as the unruly Kite, Columbia College freshman Demetrius Thornton as the hardened Justin, and nine-year-old Rachel Robinson as C Ana’s passive daughter Kandal. There’s a moment at the end of act one, when the Ritalin-sedated Kite comes to see the horrors of inner-city life for what they truly are, that’s as moving as any I’ve seen onstage in ages.

But when Corthron moves out of C Ana’s home into the neighborhood’s schools, doctors’ offices, and alleys, she abandons her gift for creating engaging and devastating drama and veers into the realm of polemics. A professor’s jargon-laden lecture to C Ana on the advantages of Ritalin contains some disturbing and possibly prophetic insights on how drugs can be used to control and pacify the disenfranchised, but it’s too crassly stated to function effectively as drama, and it only repeats the flat discussions between C Ana and Kite’s overworked teacher. Justin’s encounters with the shadowy figures of the gang underworld don’t feel genuine, which undermines the gravity of his and C Ana’s plight in a society where a life of crime seems to be the only way to achieve peace and comfort at home.

The problem isn’t that Corthron’s views lack merit; it’s that they would be much more moving and convincing if the author didn’t feel the need to spell them out directly. In the scenes that work it’s clear that she’s learned how to engage, move, and challenge an audience. Let’s hope she can learn, as Arthur Miller eventually did, how to have as much faith in her audience as she does in her lead characters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Seeking The Genesis by Liz Lauren.