When the Enemy is the Good Guy — Henrik Ibsen’s drama (by way of Arthur Miller) ‘An Enemy of the People’ still topical after all these years

Short-term profit or long-term gain? Jobs for now or healthy environments for our children? The topics of Henrik Ibsen’s play, “An Enemy of the People,” could come ripped from today’s headlines, as they say. But the ripping already started some 128 years ago, and those headlines were in Norway. In Carey McKinnon’s Valley Community Theatre production, those issues return once again to resonate in the present. The play opens tonight and features a large cast, drawing from the Valley community.

“Enemy of the People” concerns Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Jim Farnum), who becomes concerned when he learns the healing waters of a popular local spa are polluted by runoff from the tanneries. Speaking out means financial ruin for the town, whose mayor is Stockmann’s older brother (Jeff McKinnon, Carey’s husband). The truth, as we find out, will not set Stockmann free. Instead, it will make him the most hated man around. “Enemy” asks how far we would go, and what we would risk, for the sake of the truth.

Ibsen unveils the hypocrisy of government and the press when faced with — to use a recent phrase — an inconvenient truth.

But the playwright could not be pigeonholed these days with either liberal or environmentalist labels. He was a man of his time, but also ahead of it, says McKinnon.

“Some of Ibsen’s ideas in the play are either popular or easily accessible,” she says. “Arthur Miller glossed over some of them. Ibsen felt that he was an aristocrat, and wanted an aristocracy not of birth or of wealth or of political power, but an aristocracy of the intellect.”

In “Enemy of the People,” indeed, Stockmann finds himself up against the tyranny of the majority, an issue that comes up in our state anytime a proposition finds itself on the ballot. In that sense, “Enemy” provides a lot to chew over on the drive home.

To find her Dr. Stockmann, McKinnon planned to look long and hard, but fortunately found Jim Farnum early in the process.

“I’ve waited for her to do something meaty,” says Farnum, “and I only agreed to do this because she was directing.” The actor is better known for his years in standup and from hosting many comedic events. And when he went in for audition, he went for a smaller, comedic part. McKinnon insisted he take on the lead instead.

“I think people will be very surprised,” says Farnum, “and hopefully pleasantly surprised.” The role takes Farnum back to his undergrad years in Berkeley and his years supporting various environmental causes.

“Stockmann wants to see his town prosper, but not at any cost,” he says. “I would hope I would have the guts to do what he does in the play … it’s the age-old question. How willing are you to stand by your principles?”

For Farnum, this play is all about flexing new acting muscles. He’s worked in film more than theater in the last 10 years. “Film is small,” he says. “Theater is big.”

We have met the enemy, and he’s the good guy.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tonight through March 27
Where: Santa Ynez Valley High School Little Theatre, 2975 E. Highway 246, in Santa Ynez
Cost: $15 general, $5 students K-12, tickets available at the Book Loft, El Rancho Market and the Santa Ynez Valley Coffee Company
Information: (805) 686-5830

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