Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, explores the fate of a Nordic whistleblower who exposes the dangers of a town’s local hot springs, a tourist attraction and source of income.
In David Blakely’s adaptation, produced by the Justice Theatre Project, an investigative reporter sounds the alarm bells about the connection between fracking and earthquakes in Cushing, Oklahoma. More importantly, the next big shake could damage the underground storage tanks that are near fault lines, wreaking even more havoc. But will the people support a shut down of the oil pipeline supporting their community’s economy?
Focusing on the theme of climate change, Blakely’s Enemy of the People cuts the cast from 11 speaking roles to seven, eliminates the extras (imaginative use of social media fills this role), and confines the action to a one locale, the Lion’s Den. While the topic suggests serious drama, this text adds some low key comic elements to lighten the mood.
Seth Blum’s Daniel controls the narrative with the self-righteous stance of a crusading journalist on a mission to report the facts despite the consequences. Daniel seems to relish the controversy more than the complicated reality of the situation, but Blum leans effectively into this characterization.
The major source of Daniel’s tension is with his brother, Pete, the town sheriff, who wants to suppress this information and maintain the status quo for the “good people of Cushing.” J Chachula touches Daniel with swagger and conventional pronouncements, but pushes past stereotypes. Deep-seated sibling rivalry is evident, and the scenes between Blum and Chachula crackle with energy as the brothers spar over scientific data provided by a seismologist played by Nat Sherwood.
Sherwood delivers a truly standout performance as Dr. Billy Stockman, a non-binary, introverted scientist. Their nuanced characterization was humorous but not at the expense of caricature, grounding the show with realism.
Family dynamics are further complicated with Mort, Daniel’s father-in-law and an oil investor, who also offers some great comic relief. Dan Oliver plays into the good-old-boy mentality with great gusto, and Janet Boudreau offers a solid performance as Daniel’s doting wife and Mort’s beholden daughter. Emily Chiola emphasizes the feistiness of Nora, their independent-minded daughter and a school teacher, who humorously tosses quips and gestures at all members of her family.
Rounding out the ensemble is J. Ra’Chel Fowler, who is delightful as Mandy, a fiery pastor and close family friend who is ready to rile up her congregation as needed.
Under the insightful guidance of director Jerry Sipp, the ensemble effectively weaves together both the seriousness of Blakely’s messaging and the play’s darkly comedic moments. Set design by Jeffrey Nugent and special effects by Sage Amthor Twiss round out this engaging production and offer the audience a climactic moment they may soon not forget.
Blakely’s interrogation of science and facts, and those who suppress information under the guise of protecting the greater good, is frighteningly familiar. Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric hasn’t changed much from Ibsen’s day to now, an apt reminder that it is tough for the truth to prevail.