By Kimberly Rau for WPRO
The Gamm Theatre returns to live performances with “A Lie Agreed Upon,” an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century “An Enemy of the People.” Despite its antique origins, the show’s themes of science vs. opinion, hysteria vs. facts and being right vs. being self-righteous are ones that sit uncomfortably close to home on our own post-election, mid-pandemic national stage.
Director and writer Tony Estrella called this adaptation his pandemic “passion project.” Estrella champions Ibsen’s works for retaining their “bite and relevance,” and he’s correct. But, as the play says over and over again, the truth can be uncomfortable.
Set sometime in the 20th century, the play centers around Springfield, a generic small town that’s getting ready to celebrate the opening of an exciting new tourist attraction, the hot springs. Mayor Peter Stockman (played flawlessly by Jonathan Higgenbotham) cannot wait to get his little town on the map and has investors and hoteliers on his side. The local paper’s editor (Thea Hovstad, played by Nora Eschenheimer) is skeptical of the mayor’s enthusiasm, as is fellow newspaper man Billings (Jeff Ararat). And then the mayor’s brother, Dr. Thomas Stockman (Sean McConaghy), learns that the water in the springs is contaminated.
Dr. Stockman believes the town will do the right thing and invest in a very expensive remediation plan to fix the problem, holding off on opening the attraction until things are safe. Instead, what happens is a grandiose game of deflection, passing the buck and gas lighting against the doctor until all of Springfield, except Dr. Stockman’s own family, is literally ready to run him out of town. It’s a show that pits brother against brother, and facts against lies, and one inconvenient truth against another…including the fact that sometimes, being right isn’t enough, if no one is on your side.
The show is beautifully cast. Even antagonist Mayor Stockman has moments of humanity, which Higgenbotham does well, making those quiet moments just as subtle as his anger is palpable in earlier scenes. Dr. Stockman begins as loud, affable and confident in the beginning, veering into self-righteousness as the town turns against him, but by the end, McConaghy gives us an utterly broken, shell of a man that breaks your heart. Dr. Stockman’s youngest daughter, Greta, is nonverbal, and at the performance we saw, was played in a wonderfully nuanced way by Lola Darling, an eighth grader at Moses Brown (she shares the role with Aniko Moscarelli). Nora Eschenheimer embraces her role as a terrible journalist (even Ibsen distrusted the media, it seems), playing an unlikeable character very well. Jeff Ararat makes his Gamm debut as Billings, and hopefully, we get to see more fantastic acting from him in future productions.
In a nutshell, this is a good, relevant piece of work. That said, at times, the level of hysteria in the show almost feels too much and too soon, given everything that is still going on national and local levels. The final moments of Act 2 don’t hit as intended (we are re-introduced to the dead-duck-as-canary-in-the-coal-mine theme that never really connected completely), and there are certain Ibsen-created concepts that don’t modernize well (at one moment, the 20th century Stockman family is seriously entertaining running away to live at sea). However, it would be a mistake to completely malign the show for those detractors.
When is being “right” not enough? How do you temper the facts with enough empathy to engage the other side? How much should you be engaging the other side in the first place, and, whatever you decide, at what cost? Those are hard questions, and this play does not offer concrete answers. It is definitely not easy viewing, and that’s a good thing. “A Lie Agreed Upon” invites you to challenge yourself. Will you?
A Lie Agreed Upon runs through Oct. 24, 2021, at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. All theater goers must wear masks in the theater and provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266