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Washing Their Hands of It 

In its last couple of seasons, Cripple Creek Theatre Company has presented several socially conscious shows " notably Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty and more recently, Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead " in direct relation to the Iraq war. It's tempting to see Henrik Ibsen's classic An Enemy of the People (1882) in the same topical vein " it could apply to anything from who benefits from city contracts to the use of bogus intelligence to start a war. But this play will always be relevant to something, and always timely.

This is the story of how hard it is to be a whistleblower, or more accurately, how the most predictable reponse to one is an attempt to kill the messenger. And does that martyr that person for the cause, or does it simply bury the truth?

The first act of the play sets up the conflict clearly and starkly as the audience surrounds the Stockman family dining room on three sides, almost close enough to sit at their table. Donald Lewis plays an effusively optimistic and dignified Dr. Stockman, who has discovered that the city's great new attraction, its baths, are not in fact having the advertised healing effect on visitors. It's a poor town, and the recently constructed baths promise to let everyone share in the wealth generated by tourists. Unfortuantely, Stockman has treated people for illnesses that he believes are caused by pollution in the water supply serving the baths. He believes the solution is to get water from another unpolluted source. His brother Peter (Ron Reeder) is the town mayor, so the doctor believes it will be easy to get the town to support the changes.

But nothing is simple. Reeder ably handles Peter's soft-spoken and calculating ways. The changes will cost a fortune, and besides being mayor, he's an investor. He's skeptical of the health report, and not at all eager to throw away all the money already spent on construction.

And then there are the media. Representatives of a local paper dine at the doctor's table. They are eager for the scoop, and the mayor goads them as rabble-rousers and rebels. The doctor believes that the townspeople must be told. And the paper is going to run the story until the mayor stops by the publisher's office. The paper is, after all, a business. If the paper prints the story and the townspeople decide the baths must be fixed, that will be expensive. And the only way the company could do the people's will and rebuild the baths would be to levy a tax and let them pay for it, the mayor says. The paper's owners don't want to support a new tax on such an impoverished town. The mayor suggests that they might not want to to print the pollution story and risk losing advertisers who just happen to be many of the same businesses and wealthy people who invested in the baths.

The second act brings in the townspeople, or more fairly the mob. They're a loud and unruly bunch. Under Andrew Vaught's direction, they mill about throughout the play, coming and going at the four corners of the stage. The compact performance space at the North Rampart Community Center echoes with their disruptions. The doctor schedules a 'lecture" to inform the people of the hazards of the baths, but the mayor and the papers show up and we see some version of democracy in action. There is much at stake for everyone, issues of survival and greed, integrity and pride. There are many surprises in store as the various parties vie to preserve their stake.

They put to a vote whether the doctor is an enemy of the people. Actually, the question is: Who supports the doctor? As the mayor took a seat in the audience in front of me, and townspeople roared out from the aisles, I noticed the debate's moderator scanning every direction to make his count. A second later, it hit me: Why didn't I raise my hand?

My vote wouldn't have changed the play, but I felt like I failed the doctor. (He still has chances to save himself.) But it's moments like that when you know a piece of theater is engaging. The play is timeless, but you only have one more weekend to catch Cripple Creek's rousing version.

click to enlarge Petra Stockman (Monica Harris) gets caught between her family and her employer in An Enemy of the People.
  • Petra Stockman (Monica Harris) gets caught between her family and her employer in An Enemy of the People.
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