Never fails to get a rise: Pit a righteous and alienated soul bent on revealing a difficult truth against all the powers that maintain and protect a rotten status quo, skew the odds toward the bad guys, and watch the fireworks fly. The battle of good versus evil represents the central heroic mythos of Western society, and its modern artistic expression has been a continual goad to the aggressive individualism of the democratically inclined—a challenge no less attractive for being just about always declined in real life.
An Enemy of the People Strawberry Theatre Workshop at Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., www.strawshop.org. $20 (pay-what-you-can each Thurs.). 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. Ends Feb. 17.
Rarely has this mythos received a more insistent and uncluttered expression than in Henrik Ibsen's infuriating play An Enemy of the People, the story of a town whose sole attraction—its apparently health-giving springs—is a poisonous sump of disease. In Strawberry Theatre Workshop's production of Arthur Miller's 1950 adaptation of Ibsen's play, the protagonist waging war against the entire town to reveal the truth about the springs, one Dr. Stockmann, is cast as a woman. It's a seamless translation, and a canny move which both complicates and elevates the play's timeless message. Amy Fleetwood brings something new and invigorating to this traditionally male role; with her piercing blue eyes and surging spiritual energy, her portrayal tips the familiar on its head, injecting Ibsen's portrait of moral outrage with a transformative dose of humanizing charm and understated feminist fury.
Director Greg Carter (currently technical director at Cornish College) works a real magic with Miller's adaptation, which seeks to unearth the elemental force of Ibsen's work by clearing away some of its more dated details. This is a stripped-down, propulsive production that moves with the insistent logic of tragedy. At the same time, Carter and cast tease out the play's most complex and subtle aspects, many of them unspoken—the quiet suspicions of men interacting with empowered women, the slow corrosion of scientific fact by popular superstition, and, most crucially, the relentless process by which political activism becomes bitter misanthropy. Along with Carter's confident direction, it is the excellent cast that really makes this show. Everyone is exceedingly strong here, though two performances are especially noteworthy: Troy Fischnaller as the ethically compromised journalist Hovstad, and the always wonderful Brandon Whitehead as that mincing maven of moderation, the publisher Aslaksen. Despite the script's rather broad strokes, these two performances provide as comprehensive yet damning an indictment of the press as you're likely to see.
For obvious reasons, this is a play staged rather regularly in Seattle: Its universal themes of activism, moral outrage, and the never-ending perfidy of the powers that be appeal mightily to our lefty sense of collective self-worth. Anyone who feels they've seen enough of Enemy, however, might want to reconsider. With Fleetwood in the lead, the good supporting cast, and crackerjack direction by Carter, Ibsen's play receives a refreshing fillip, an additional nuance that amplifies its power while granting it a new depth. What's more, the gender switch draws little attention to itself, testament at once to the elasticity of Miller's adaptation, Fleetwood's strong performance, and Carter's understanding of the material. This Enemy burns with a surprising intensity, illuminating hidden corners of a social and political fable as old as civilization itself.