Ibsen's play, which opened in a production Thursday night by Manhattan Theatre Club at its Friedman Theatre, remains urgent 130 years after he wrote it, and too bad for us. Peter Forcelli is a whistleblower who made news this summer when he settled, for an untold sum of money, with the bureau that employed him and whose officials assassinated his character because he told Congress about a mismanaged project in which 2,000 or so guns disappeared.
Forcelli was, in the end, vindicated for doing nothing more than telling the truth. Several others in whistleblower cases around the country may fare as well or not, but the point is that "outing" your colleagues' gross incompetence - Rebecca Lenkiewicz uses "outing" in her crisp and effective update of Ibsen's script - is dangerous truth-telling.
In An Enemy of the People, the situation is a life-or-death finding by a scientist Thomas Stockmann (sterling, intense Boyd Gaines), a public health officer who sends suspicious spa water to be tested at a lab. The lab reports back that the water is full of dangerous bacteria. Stockmann's older brother (Richard Thomas, whose modulated interpretation gives the character polish) is the mayor and therefore Stockmann's boss.
Sibling rivalry plays heavily into the situation, and so does the local newspaper, whose editor (John Procaccino) must choose between reporting the truth and keeping it quiet for at least the short-run sake of the town.
Doug Hughes, who directs Enemy so that all its passions are underscored, has assembled a great cast whose leading players interpret their characters with a flair that gives the play a here-and-now feel, even though Lenkiewicz' new version is true to 19th-century social conventions. The supporting cast includes James Waterston as a reporter, Michael Silberry as a tannery owner whose industrial waste is a source of the problem, the excellent Gerry Bamman as a printer, Maïté Alina as the whistleblower's supportive daughter and Kathleen McNenny as his wife. They build their characters with remarkable care.
Catherine Zuber's costumes are handsome period renditions and John Lee Beatty's impressive set changes locations on a turntable. That set becomes moot when toward the play's end, Hughes stages a town meeting at the front of the audience, in the aisles and on the stage apron; it's stark and effective. At that point, though, Ibsen's Enemy turns from an elegantly posited conundrum into a polemic that seems simplistic until the play rights itself in the end.
It struck me, after the play was finished and I had walked a few blocks from the theater, how well An Enemy of the People speaks to us, even if we may see it today as contrived or laden with extremes. I spotted a sign with what's become, since 9/11, a slogan of New York: "If you see something, say something." That line, of course, addresses issues of security, and risk to the greater public. It's also a principle behind whistleblowing, whose risk - in Ibsen's time and in ours - may be on the one who sees something and says something, too.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
An Enemy of the People: At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47the St., New York.