The line between right and wrong can often be blurred by politics and nowhere more so than in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The play centers on a pair of brothers on different sides of a moral debate. At issue is the condition of their small Norwegian town’s spa baths — dubbed contaminated by one, brilliant scientist, but integral to the continued elected life of the other and the town he runs — and whether said condition should be exposed or left alone. On one side is the argument that people are being made ill by the waters and so the situation should be made public; on the other looms the economic reality that the spa is the town’s largest generator of revenue, which could cease immediately with such a scary disclosure. In this revival, adeptly recast by the currently hot British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the language has gone provocatively colloquial and throws the Victorian play squarely into the present; but in an uncertain world and an American election year rife with moral finger-pointing, it is undeniable how relevant and timeless its message remains.

At the outset, Dr. Thomas Stockmann is on top of the world. The idealistic physician has found his niche in town, and now has enough money to afford small luxuries for his beloved family (like the roast beef on the table) after years of implied poverty. He arrives home after a walk with his sons to find the local newspaper editor, Hovstad, and his comical assistant, Billings, already at table. Their conversation runs to the local spa, of which the doctor has been a prime supporter; as has his brother, the town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann, who prides himself on the income the spa is bringing in. Mayor Stockmann arrives next, also holding forth about the spa and his role in developing it. He is thrilled that his brother has written an article for the paper extolling the virtues of taking the waters and expects the coming summer to be a happily lucrative one for the town.

Something, however, is rotten in Norway. Dr. Stockmann wants to wait a bit before publishing his glowing report. As the action unfolds, it appears the good doc has proof that the spa is contaminated, and many have been infected with typhus and other diseases. Having uncovered the mess, the guileless man fully expects to be acknowledged as a hometown hero, and wants to publish this fact immediately. But when his brother (read: local authority) and Hovstat (read: media) understand the situation as a demolition of local economic stability, the tables turn on Stockmann and the unraveling of his own position and that of his family is the lynchpin of the play. By the end, Stockmann is alone with his righteousness on the moral high ground, and with people throwing rocks through the windows of his beautiful home or screaming “Enemy of the People!” when he tries to explain himself in the town hall. But who, exactly, is the enemy? Is it the one who relinquishes a few lives to save an entire town’s economy or the one who destroys the source of income because of lethal but limited inherent dangers? Here we see shades of Karen Silkwood and Love Canal, and serious questions which are never completely answered — except, perhaps, in the minds of theatergoers who have been arguing them since the day this play was first produced and will surely continue after this notable production.

There is nothing better than watching Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas, major theatrical veterans, joust and parry onstage. Gaines shines with the intergalactic light of moral certainty as Thomas Stockmann, and deflates with disappointment as the honest expectation of becoming the town savior dims, dies, and turns into a vendetta against him; Thomas, perhaps slightly too warm to be the icy and officious mayoral presence, nonetheless carries off the required, unbending stiffness (read: cold absolutism) right down to the accessories of a hat and walking stick, without which he goes nowhere. As Hovstad, the town’s newspaper editor, John Procaccino (also seen in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is an irksome pleasure to watch; his long lankiness wrapping itself around whichever situation will benefit him the most. Kudos to the rest of the cast, including Kathleen McNenny as the doctor’s wife, Maite Alina as his daughter, and Randall Newsome as Captain Horster, the only one in town who seems to side with the doctor, and James Waterston as Billings, Hovstat’s cloying but funny assistant.

Perhaps the biggest hand ought to be given to Doug Hughes, resident director at Roundabout Theater. Hughes has a long and illustrious history but we don’t often get to see his prowess with classic material. Here he gives each character ample room to hold forth, and as such balances the play’s frame. The result is that even while most question the morality of the mayor’s decision to kill the news article about the spa contamination and the subsequent ruin of his brother, there is also an element of doubt as to whether or not his reasoning may have had elements of viability. And while one wonders how the doctor can hold onto his ideals while being persecuted, more than a shred of sympathy for him is left intact. Hughes has a masterful hand at character and its nuances which has not failed him here with Ibsen, where it is of the utmost urgency. And, unlike much of what we see on Broadway, one leaves this play with unanswered questions of the best sort, those that make people think.

“An Enemy of the People” is currently playing at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). For more information or tickets visit: or call (212)-239-6200 or (800)-432-7250.

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