The En­emy’s timely tale of con­tam­i­nated truth

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - By Janet Smith

Con­tam­i­nated water, politi­cians choos­ing eco­nom­ics over the en­vi­ron­ment, and a news me­dia grap­pling with truth ver­sus fake news. Those may sound like themes pulled from to­day’s head­lines, but they come from a play that’s more than a cen­tury old: An En­emy of the Peo­ple, writ­ten in 1882 by Nor­we­gian play­wright Hen­rik Ib­sen.

Now, 136 years later, Fire­hall Arts Cen­tre artis­tic pro­ducer Donna Spencer’s new adap­ta­tion, The En­emy, pulls the story straight into 2018, set­ting it in a B.C. town where a spa and wa­ter­park draw tourists in droves. She’s added such modern touch­stones as boil-water ad­vi­sories and a dig­i­tally minded town news­pa­per that’s driven by web hits.

“There is a health springs up in the moun­tains and that was healthy and was for com­mu­nity use,” Spencer ex­plains, sit­ting in her brick-walled of­fice at the her­itage theatre she’s led for more than three decades. “Then the com­mu­nity de­cides it needs an­other re­source, so the mayor and his bud­dies say, ‘Why don’t we ac­tu­ally make a wa­ter­park there?’ But to do that, they have to bring water in from dif­fer­ent sources.” That in­tro­duces con­tam­i­na­tion that the lead char­ac­ter, Dr. Stock­man, dis­cov­ers in a lab re­port. “It could come from fer­til­izer in the fields; it could come from mine tail­ings,” Spencer says.

Stock­man wants to blow the whis­tle. The cen­tral dilemma for oth­ers is that pub­li­ciz­ing the story could ruin the town’s main source of rev­enue—mak­ing Stock­man an en­emy of the peo­ple. But cov­er­ing it up could have dire con­se­quences. “The truth is any­thing but blackand-white these days,” Spencer says. “This is ask­ing us to ques­tion, ‘What would you do?’”

The story re­minds Spencer, who’s also di­rect­ing the play, of the Kin­der Mor­gan pipe­line de­bate here. “For many peo­ple, if it doesn’t go through, they’re los­ing their liveli­hood, and for many, if it does go through, it could de­stroy the ocean,” she says.

Spencer has been work­ing on the adap­ta­tion off and on for the last 15 years. She de­buted it at the Fire­hall in 2002, and it saw sev­eral more small mount­ings over the en­su­ing years. But she al­ways wanted to get back to it—and the era of Don­ald Trump, pop­ulism, fake news, and other events made her re­al­ize the time was right for an up­date. “It was that theme: ‘Is the ma­jor­ity al­ways right?’” she says. “I kept think­ing, ‘I have to go back to that play be­fore I re­tire.’”

From the adap­ta­tion’s very be­gin­nings in 2002, Spencer has wanted the doc­tor, a male in Ib­sen’s orig­i­nal, to be a woman—with Jenn Grif­fin play­ing the role in the new pro­duc­tion. And that cast­ing brings a whole new mean­ing to the fight the char­ac­ter mounts against her town and its old boys’ club.

“There’s a dif­fer­ent dy­namic to play with there. When women are pas­sion­ate about some­thing, we’re called hys­ter­i­cal, whereas a man is be­ing brave or heroic,” Spencer says.

Spencer re­treated to Lit­tle Shuswap Lake this sum­mer to dig into the play again, want­ing to bring it up-to-date for the dig­i­tal era. She also went back to Arthur Miller’s 1950s adap­ta­tion of An En­emy of the Peo­ple, which the play­wright wrote dur­ing the night­mare of Mc­carthy­ism.

So­cial me­dia now plays a big role in the out­come of The En­emy, with Spencer find­ing ways to project its at­tacks in the play’s vi­o­lent cli­max—one that tra­di­tion­ally in­volves bricks and win­dows. “At the end they should be ques­tion­ing who is the en­emy,” says Spencer of the au­di­ence. “It’s not the doc­tor. Is it the mayor? Or the gen­eral pub­lic? I hope they will ask them­selves who’s com­plicit in this.”

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