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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Mostly Cloudy and Breezy
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A public health crisis unfolds in Aquila production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People

Thursday night in Overture Center's Playhouse, the members of Aquila Theatre, a London-born company now based in New York City, got an introduction to local audiences that was what Midwesterners might evasively dub "interesting" -- a convenient stand-in for something less diplomatic.

During a heated, emotionally charged scene involving an unruly public meeting, a woman's laughter at the protestations of Hovstad, the slippery editor of a liberal paper called The People's Messenger, visibly caught the touring actors off their guard.

As Hovstad made reference to his paper being "fair and balanced," it was nearly impossible not to emit a gentle snort while thinking of the Fox News slogan -- and this was a production of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, that encouraged modern parallels at every turn.

Yet one woman in particular had trouble reining in her reaction. What started as an understandable titter lasted far too long and got weird, forcing Owen Young as the newspaper editor to ad lib a bit. (As my companion for the evening, a fellow writer, so succinctly put it later: "I think the actors were like, 'WTF.'")

Because while there are a few light moments in An Enemy of the People, the community confrontation in which Dr. Thomas Stockmann is branded as such is not one of them. If anything, Ibsen's play strays too far into polemical, didactic territory, though Aquila's production is well-acted.

In an unnamed town, a spa project promises to bring tourist dollars and an economic boost to the community. But Dr. Stockmann (Damian Davis), a local physician who is also medical director of the spa, gets scientific proof of something he's suspected -- industrial pollution in the water supply is making spa-goers sick. He feels there's no choice but to blow the lid on this serious risk to public health.

His elder brother, the icy Peter (James Lavender), is the town mayor and also chair of the spa's board of directors. Peter is adamant about keeping the doctor's knowledge under wraps, knowing that it could damage the town economy and local taxpayers (who would have to pay for improvements to fix the problem). Peter is the sort of villain who makes dark pronouncements like "An individual must learn to submit himself to the community" and "The public doesn't need any new ideas."

Played convincingly by Lavender, Peter is the type of corporate crony who'll support business at any cost, consequences be damned. His tight smile barely conceals an inner ugliness.

The newspaper editor, ostensibly a progressive, isn't much better. While he initially is willing to expose the environmental damage going on, he's easily strong-armed by Mayor Stockmann. "We can turn the situation into good copy whatever happens," he rationalizes.

Yet our supposed hero, Dr. Stockmann, is not without his own faults: he's right, of course, but he's also filled with self-righteousness and even arrogance, railing against the perpetual stupidity of the majority.

In an attempt to connect the play's themes with current concerns, the actors wear modern clothing and the minimal set includes Ikea-like furnishings. Stark lighting and occasional video projections also give a contemporary feel. And, in fact, it's remarkable how relevant this 128-year-old script still is. While Dr. Stockmann has scientific proof of what's actually happening, others choose not to accept it because it doesn't suit their agendas (global warming, anyone?).

While the Aquila cast seemed to rush through their lines a bit in the play's first half, genuine dramatic moments were achieved in the second half, distracting giggles aside. Though the female roles in this play are somewhat thankless (the doctor's radical daughter, Petra, must make wooden exclamations about her father's magnificence and bravery), An Enemy of the People does speak to Ibsen's prescience as a playwright.

Aquila Theatre's An Enemy of the People runs through March 28. And for an extra dose of Ibsen, University Theatre is staging The Lady from the Sea beginning March 19.

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