DAVENPORT — A 138-year-old play by the Norwegian master Henrik Ibsen holds painfully relevant lessons for our chaotic 2020 political climate.

In a 2019 adaptation of “An Enemy of the People,” a battle between public health concerns and economic prosperity plays out in the public sphere between concerned citizens and leaders of the local government.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)

The unique radio-play production, by the St. Ambrose University Theatre Department, will be presented this weekend and next on KALA 88.5 FM and online HERE.

The new adaptation was written by Tom Isbell, a theater professor at University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), who is friends with SAU director and theater professor Cory Johnson. They’ve worked together with the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF).

“He’s a really distinguished actor and director,” she said Wednesday, noting Isbell recently presented an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in Duluth. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said.

Isbell has taken two productions to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. – “Dear Finder” in 1999, and “The Movie Game” in 2002, and three other productions to regional festivals. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Isbell spent 10 years as a professional actor, acting opposite Robert DeNiro, Ed Harris, John Turturro, Sarah Jessica Parker, Anne Bancroft and many others.

As a playwright, he’s been honored to have three of his plays produced by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Minnesota actor, playwright and professor Tom Isbell adapted the Ibsen.

Ibsen wrote “An Enemy of the People” (1882) in response to the public outcry against his previous play, “Ghosts,” Johnson said, which challenged the hypocrisy of 19th-century morality.

According to Ellen Mortensen, the words “scandalous,” “degenerate,” and “immoral” were hurled at both “Ghosts” and its author because it openly discussed adultery and syphilis. “An Enemy of the People” tells the story of a man who dares to speak an unpalatable truth, and is punished for it, according to a synopsis. 

A review of Isbell’s version, a UMD production in November 2019, at duluthnewstribune.com, said it “reverberates with issues ripped from the headlines: political corruption, moral bankruptcy, environmental crises, the role of the whistleblower and the need for a free press.”

“The star of the show is UMD professor Tom Isbell’s scintillating new adaptation, down from five acts to one taut 85-minute act, performed without an intermission,” the review said. “Some characters, scenes and plot elements are left out or altered, and the roles that the women play are now more integral, making the script laser-focused and as contemporary as the latest Tweet or evening news broadcast.”

The play won two national awards from the KCACTF —  Distinguished Production of a Play and Distinguished Director of a Play. UMD Theatre has been a part of the regional competition for the past 30 years. “An Enemy of the People” played in the Dudley Experimental Theater in November and advanced to the Region 5 competition in January.

Replacement for a “First Date”

Johnson suggested the radio play – her first in a long Ambrose career — as a substitute for the previously scheduled SAU musical, “First Date,” which “didn’t make a whole lot of sense” when students returned in August, given the Covid-19 pandemic.

Corinne Johnson is director of the St. Ambrose production.

They started rehearsals with the small “Enemy” cast around the same time, in late August, and its Friday opening is the same date the musical would have opened.

Johnson encouraged actors to memorize their lines, even though only their voices would be recorded. “We had a lot of time to delve into characterization, timing,” she said. “This was the perfect time to do it, right before our presidential election.”

“It is absolutely a prescient piece – with references to fake news, what is truth,” she said. “What are you willing to do to stand up for truth? Do the citizens have a right to know what is true, or should they be protected if they can’t handle the truth?”

After Johnson watched the bitter, brutal first presidential debate Tuesday night, she felt “so sad about how timely this play is.”

It’s up to the audience to decide who the play’s “enemy” is, she said.

“At some point, the baton is passed to the younger generation in hopes of making their way more successfully than the current one,” the director said, drawing a parallel to today’s younger voters. “There is optimism at the end — there has to be optimism for positive change. It feels like the meek rise up and take a leadership role because they have to.”

“It is a play that challenges us to fight for what we think is important,” Johnson said.

SAU students, including Luke Peterson (left) rehearse “An Enemy of the People.”

Given that she didn’t have to block the play on stage, the cast rehearsed in the SAU studio theater (masked and socially distant), and they recorded it on the main stage at Galvin Fine Arts Center.

“Each of them had their own microphone, which was sterilized,” she said. “We also had curtains between them. During their lines, they stood up, said their lines without masks on, and as soon as they were done with lines, they sat back down and put their masks on.”

“A lot of hot-button issues”

Luke Peterson, an Ambrose senior majoring in theater and sociology, plays a newspaper editor in the show.

“The play is a wonderful adaptation,” he said, noting Isbell “has his finger on the pulse of a lot of hot-button issues we as a society are facing — economic concerns, power, corruption.

“He’s written it for a modern audience,” he said of the story concerning contamination of a town’s bathing complex. “He sprinkles in a lot of slogans, vernacular that you hear people using today, to speak out against injustices.”

In light of the presidential election a month from its opening (hovering over Covid, racial injustice, the economy, climate change and election

Director Cory Johnson (left) works with students on the play.

integrity), “it’s incredibly relevant,” Peterson said. “I think the year 2020 has really highlighted a need for social change. I think that this play speaks to the importance of using our voices to speak out against injustice.”

“I think we as artists, citizen artists, have a responsibility to speak truth. We need to speak out for what is right as well,” he said. “The play does not specifically group this character or that with the Democrats or Republicans. It’s advocating for pro-truth.”

But even science and objective truth have come under attack in this scorched-earth political landscape.

“I don’t know how we got to the point, we view science and public health concerns as a matter of politics,” Peterson lamented. “The play does a really good job of waking people up. We can’t allow ourselves to be desensitized.”

“It’s the ignorance; we don’t have time for ignorance,” he said, noting at 21 this will be his first presidential election and he hopes the play also will inspire people to vote.

St. Ambrose alum Aaron Randolph III works on the audio recording process.

“I definitely was looking forward to the musical comedy here,” Peterson said of the theater change in plans. “When Covid first happened, I don’t think anyone thought it would go on for this long. Doing musical comedy after a horrible global pandemic, people could laugh, have some escapism.

“In that, I miss the musical, but no one could have predicted how 2020 was going to go,” he said. “Coming together like this is an undeniably cathartic experience. It gives a sense of optimism, there is hope better days will come.”

In another sense, “An Enemy of the People” is more important than a frothy romantic comedy, to speak to more important social issues, Peterson said.

Future plans for Ambrose live theater (like most things) are subject to the pandemic, Johnson said.

“Right now, we probably foolishly, moved a number of student-directed plays to the second semester,” she said. “Everything is subject to the health code. We are forging ahead; we don’t want to announce anything, but we are very hopeful doing a full slate of shows next semester. It’s all predicated on the vaccine.”

“An Enemy of the People” will be broadcast on KALA at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (plus Oct. 9-10), and 3 p.m. Sunday (plus Oct. 11).

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.