Riot Act stages an explosive production of an Ibsen classic

Review • Whit Hertford’s adaptation of “An Enemy of the People” throws a contemporary light on a provocative issue.

Andy Rindlisbach as Thomas Stockmann in Riot Act’s "An Enemy of the People." (Courtesy photo by Haley Hoover)

Sometimes the way you go about things can become more crucial than what you want to accomplish. This is the dilemma facing Thomas Stockmann, the main character in Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” Whit Hertford’s Riot Act theater is currently premiering his contemporary adaptation of Ibsen’s controversial play.

Thomas is an idealistic activist who has discovered an impending crisis in his city, a place that could be Salt Lake. A new, supposedly completely clean-burning refinery is under construction. Thomas’ brother, Peter, who is the mayor, promises it will bring new jobs and national attention that will revitalize the local economy. “We’re doing something right,” he says proudly.

But the plastic used in the refinery contains phthalates, a toxic chemical released by heat that pollutes the air and causes serious health problems. To make matters trickier, Thomas’ father-in-law, Morten, already at odds with Thomas, manufactures the plastic.

Thomas’ report exposing the problem receives strong support from the editors of the local paper, Hovstad and Billing, who have their own issues with government and “the power of the wealthy.” “Truth cannot be a slave to money,” Hovstad says.

Then Peter reveals the economic disaster and public scandal the report will cause, and they back down. Aslaksen, the paper’s opportunistic new employee, urges them to be “smart and sensible.”

What deepens “An Enemy of the People” and makes it interesting is the way Thomas handles the situation. As Peter observes, he is his own worst enemy. He is unrelenting, unwilling to listen to any other points of view. His conviction comes across as arrogance. Instead of trying to work with others, he antagonizes them. “Our spiritual lives are polluted,” he announces self-righteously. His wife, Katherine, calls him obsessed and cautions, “You’ll never get anything done like that.”

Riot Act’s production is full of raw energy and electricity, thanks to Hertford’s tight, pared-down direction and the cast’s explosive performances. The confined performance space puts the audience on top of the action. At one point, we become attendees of a town-hall meeting and are asked to contribute opinions on the ethics of politics and majority rule. Although this discussion goes on too long and incorporates other issues that distract from the play, the dynamic is innovative and intriguing.

As Thomas, Andy Rindlisbach is a seething dynamo of conflicting emotions, constantly in motion. He becomes increasingly agitated as his isolation intensifies. Roger Dunbar’s Peter is a striking contrast: silver-tongued and totally in control. Even his sedate suit distances him from the other characters. Aaron Kramer’s impassioned Hovstad has a lot of anger and big ideas but no staying power, and Hertford’s oily opportunist of an Aslaksen spends his time toadying up to everyone. Stephen Williams’ embittered, cynical Morten knows how to play all the angles. Jerry Costner struggles to give some personality and color to Billing, a largely undefined character, but the weak link in the cast is Allie Russell’s Katherine. She captures the character’s frustration and fluctuating loyalty to her husband, but it’s difficult to understand and sometimes even hear her.

“An Enemy of the People” raises thought-provoking questions about whistleblowers. Is there a way for them to achieve their ends without alienating themselves from the people they are striving to save? “I was trying to do what is right,” Thomas protests to Katherine, but he seems to make all the wrong choices to do it. Or maybe there are no other choices. Ibsen and Hertford leave us to debate that question.

Enemy of the People<br>Riot Act’s reinvention of Ibsen’s classic melodrama raises questions about the ability to tell the truth in our contemporary political and economic climate.<br>When • Reviewed Thursday, Sept. 21; plays Sept. 27–28 and Oct. 1 and 4–6 at 7:30 p.m.<br>Where • The Wherehaüs (formerly CUAC Art Gallery), 175 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $19; $17 for students; riotacttheatre.com<br>Running time • 80 minutes (no intermission)