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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Strollers Theatre's Paragon Springs brims with timely political sentiments and enjoyable Midwestern characters
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Christopher Younggren in Strollers Theatre's <i>Paragon Springs</i>
Christopher Younggren in Strollers Theatre's Paragon Springs
Credit:Jonathan J. Miner

Strollers Theatre gets political for Paragon Springs, its opener for the 2012-13 season. This isn't just a nod to the presidential campaign: The specters of the Capitol protests and the failed gubernatorial recall loom large in this production, which runs through October 6.

In her first paragraph of notes about the show, director Meghan Randolph draws comparisons between this play based on Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and the tensions brought about by the Walker administration. She adopts a he-who-must-not-be-named approach for discussing the matter. While the average local would like to see Walker as a purely evil villain, Paragon Springs questions the motives of not just the right wing but unions, communities and supporters of democracy.

Written by Steven Dietz, Paragon Springs is set in the 1920s, in a Wisconsin community of the same name. Door County-style fish boils are where the action is in this small town, which is on the verge of making it big due to its hot springs' restorative properties. Actors Don Dexter and Daniel Jajewski set the scene with obvious Sconnie accents and familiar Midwestern attributes. Jajewski seems like he'd be at home muddin' in an F150 or playing flipcup on the UW campus. Dexter is a lovable local crank reminiscent of Art Kumbalek, one of Milwaukee's most beloved curmudgeons.

When the play begins, the town's springs are set to rake in a record number of tourists. Well, that's the case until Dr. Thomas Stockman discovers dangerous bacteria in the water. His family and friends laud the discovery until his mayor brother and the town board exert their influence by flaunting their financial power. As the implications of the discovery ripple through the town, Dr. Stockman loses the support of his brother, his wife and an extremely buyable independent press.

The most striking aspect of both Paragon Springs and An Enemy of the People is the characterization of Dr. Stockman, a guy who seems quite liberal at first glance. He's the type of self-made individual that tea party Republicans such as Gov. Walker and vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan would claim embodies the ideals of Ayn Rand. One can imagine Rand denouncing collectivism and the tyranny of the majority alongside Dr. Stockman as he rails against the crowd at the end of the play. His rant, which includes Ibsen's oft-quoted phrase "a majority is always wrong," reflects much worse on the empowered individual than Atlas Shrugged ever could. Dr. Stockman denounces the rubes and fools he's forced to live with by attacking equality, democracy and other generally good principles working society holds dear. The apparent difference between Dr. Stockman and Atlas Shrugged protagonist John Galt is that Dr. Stockman seeks the unattainable ideal of truth, while Galt aims for attainable things such as money and power.

Christopher Younggren makes a strong Dr. Stockman for Paragon Springs, and Mickey Crocker stands out as a scheming tannery owner. Both help the play explore the gray area between right and wrong. Some doomed love plots and a heavy-handed call for women's liberation are framed as an homage to Ibsen's call for female empowerment, but they often seem like simple filler. A few wooden performances by some of the greener actors dampened the impact of opening night's performance.

Still, the play successfully relates to our tumultuous times by exploring the nebulous concept of truth and providing a civics lesson many locals need to hear -- and heed. It goes like this: tea partiers may have a backwards worldview at best, but they are our neighbors. If the choice is between getting along or wandering through life alone, uncertainty and indecision aren't the worst problems to have.

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