What happens when a man realizes that honesty runs into resistance rather than appreciation?
That’s the question Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen poses in “Enemy of the People.”
Montgomery College is presenting the classic 1882 play at the Parilla Performing Arts Center.
Protagonist Thomas Stockmann, a medical officer tasked with inspecting the public baths that provide prosperity to his native town, finds the water to be contaminated.
Not only don’t the townspeople listen; they ostracize him, destroy his home, expel his daughter from school, and fire him.
When he refuses to be silenced, they declare Stockmann an “enemy of the people.”
Staging the play is freelance director/actor/educator Matthew Bassett, who has been affiliated with the college since 2012.
The theater department decides which works to produce, with input from the faculty and Bassett.
He approached the department a while back with the idea of producing “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s drama based in part on the Salem Witch Trials.
“But obtaining rights was a problem, since Olney Theatre Company is presenting the play this spring,” Bassett said.
When the college then considered “Enemy of the People,” he jumped at the chance. Bassett had never directed an Ibsen play before, and the theme “really is relevant to where we are today,” he said.
Moreover, in one of those theater coincidences, the version the college is using is one Arthur Miller adapted in the 1950s for a Broadway production starring Fredric March.
Directing students is different than his working with professional companies, Bassett pointed out.
“I try to keep in mind that this is an educational setting,” he said. ““I give them the same professional standards, but the threshold is different. What might be a fireable moment for a professional is a teachable moment for a student.”
Though the theme of “Enemy of the People” is sophisticated, Bassett said “the students are getting it. I’ve frontloaded them with lots of table work and discussion, and pushed each of them to find examples [of the way they relate to it]. They get that it’s not really about the water – but about information, power, and truth. If we’re not careful, power dictates truth.”
“Enemy of the People” is a “big play with big ideas,” he added. “But the gift we get from both Ibsen and Miller is that all the big ideas really boil down to interpersonal relationships.”
Leah Windley is one of the lead actors. She plays the Mayor of the town, a character who is a man in the original play and Stockmann’s brother.
Now called Petronella instead of Peter, she is also a woman Windley admits having had trouble liking at first.
“Then I realized that she’s not so much a cold person as someone who feels she has to put on a cold exterior to get ahead in a man’s world, of politics,” Windley said.
What isn’t put on is the fact that she and her brother don’t get along.
“Petronella doesn’t change her mind about the dispute between Stockman and the townspeople, but she realizes the consequence of his actions, that the people are really angry and even violent,” said Windley. “She wants her brother to change – thinking she has the town’s interest at heart – but she does love him.”
Windley, a senior with a double major in performance and technical theater aspects, previously appeared at the college in musicals such as “Batboy,” “Avenue Q,” “and “Urinetown.” “Enemy of the People” is clearly far afield.
“I’m way more used to comedic stuff,” she said. “But I enjoyed the play a lot. It’s my favorite show I’ve done so far.”
“Enemy of the People” runs through Feb. 25, with 8 p.m. performances tonight through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, at the Performing Arts Center, 51 Mannakee Street, Rockville. For more information, call the box office at 240-567-5301 or visit the website at www.montgomerycollege.edu.