Richard Baird in "Public Enemy." Photo courtesy of New Fortune Theatre Company
New Fortune Theatre Company’s “Public Enemy” is remarkable for two reasons in particular: First, that the adaptation by David Harrower (“Blackbird”) succeeds in compacting Henrik Ibsen’s sprawling five-act “Enemy of the People” into a swiftly moving 90 minutes and sacrifices none of the essence of the original text. Second, a fervent performance by New Fortune Artistic Director Richard Baird (who also directs “Public Enemy”) that at its crescendo in a relentless diatribe manifests Ibsen’s thrust about the lonely heroism of bearing the truth.
What was true about the original “Enemy of the People” is just as true in “Public Enemy”: The majority don’t want the truth, and the politicians and power brokers look out only for themselves.
If New Fortune’s “Public Enemy,” rich with spirited performances as it is, wasn’t so consistently entertaining, it might otherwise be deflating in making its inescapable points. Like: What was so in Ibsen’s Norway of the late 19th century is just as so today in … let’s use America as an example? Yet you come out of this show staged in a small theater at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma drained from the emotional investment made in Baird’s desperate Dr. Thomas Stockmann but at the same time on a high from the energy of the production.
Ibsen’s premise for “Enemy” was straightforward. Stockmann, who is chief medical officer of a spa in a town that is reaping the financial rewards of its popularity, discovers and then verifies that the baths’ waters are poisonous with bacteria. He is determined for the welfare of his fellow citizens to blow the whistle, to put it in contemporary parlance. But there are immediate complications: Stockmann’s brother and rival Peter is the mayor. His father-in-law owns the tannery from which most of the toxins are flowing.
At first supported and championed by the editor of the local newspaper and certainly by those in his sphere, Stockmann will prove no match for the wieldings of his power-hungry brother and the town businessmen. All but his wife and three children and a close seafaring friend will turn on him.
It’s thrilling, especially in a close space like that in Point Loma, to watch the shifts of mood, intensity and mindset in Baird’s portrayal of Stockmann: elated, initially, at the realization of his discovery; indignant at the resistance and pushback from his brother; simmering with a desire to fight, even destroy said brother in retaliation; incredulous, almost speechless, from the betrayal by his friends; resigned – but just briefly – to his report being quashed before a public hearing; and then a fierce and exhausting monologue, with microphone – an indictment of the stupidity in his midst, a manic confrontation with his being indeed a “public enemy”; and nearly a descent into madness.
It’s a triumphant performance.
Nick Kennedy makes a formidable adversary as Peter, smug and superior and threatening. As Hovstad, editor of the local Reformer, Trevor Cruse credibly accomplishes the transformation from ally to spineless turncoat. There are fine turns, too, from Neil McDonald as the compromising head of the local businessmen’s association and Amanda Schaar as Stockmann’s wife Katrine.
“Public Enemy” addresses the question “What can one man do?” The answer is complicated … and devastating.
“Public Enemy” runs through July 2 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.