Modern themes come to life in JSU Drama’s “An Enemy of the People”

Katie ClineEditor-in-Chief

Sibling rivalry, political corruption and scientific truth come to a head in the Jacksonville State University Drama Department’s 2017-2018 season opener, “An Enemy of the People.”

The play, directed by assistant professor Mike Boynton, is an Arthur Miller translation and adaptation of the original Henrik Ibsen play. Miller and Ibsen, both renown playwrights, lend their hand to creating a story that resonates far beyond the small Norwegian town it is set in.

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From left, Mrs. Katherine Stockmann (Jessika Holmes), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Aaron Williams), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Larry Mason) and Hovstad (Benjamin Marazzi) perform a scene from “An Enemy of the People” (photo via JSU Drama)

“Even though the play is set in 1890s Norway, the themes speak very deeply to important things today,” Boynton said. “The persecution of a public intellectual: why when an expert, be it a scientist or a journalist, tries to tell us the truth, why do we as a majority tend to shut down? It brings up a lot of great, modern issues in a historical way.”

The play follows Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Aaron Williams) as he discovers that a spring has been poisoned in the town that his brother, Peter (Larry Mason), is the mayor of. In his effort to protect the people, Dr. Stockmann is shut down and rejected at every turn, at first by the government, then by the press and, finally, by the people themselves.

“It brings up the issue of, ‘sometimes the majority isn’t right; sometimes democracy fails us,’” Boynton said.

For the actors, “An Enemy of the People” provides a stark contrast to many of the works performed by JSU Drama in the last few years. It is the first modern drama that the department has put on in several seasons, and Boynton says that the depth of a Miller play can be intimidating at first.

“You can’t hide behind show tunes and dance numbers or beautiful verse and flashy special effects,” said Boynton. “No, it’s a simple living room and a lot of talking. So the acting has to be really good—smart, subtle acting and creating three-dimensional characters onstage.”

Larry Mason and Aaron Williams got used to “beautiful verse” when they played opposite each other as Antonio and Prince Ferdinand in JSU’s production of “The Tempest” last spring, but Mason says there are perks to playing a modern antagonist, too.

“The difference between a Miller villain and a Shakespeare villain is so vastly different,” said Mason. “If Shakespeare wants you to believe that someone is evil, he will go leaps and bounds to prove to you that they’re evil. Whereas Miller wants you to believe that they’re human before they’re evil, so there’s a lot more dynamic and a lot more emotion that I can play with and work with in this piece.”

For Williams, the devil has been in the details—literally.

“There are so many layers and details,” Williams said. “Like, there can be three different layers of meaning in just one sentence. And you have to be true to the moment. It’s a lot to keep up with. You have to remember how to stand properly, how to sit properly. You have to unbutton your jacket when you sit down and all of this etiquette, plus all of your lines and your blocking and to project and articulate and be resonant—and that’s not even including the subject matter of the script.”

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Aaron Williams and Larry Mason perform a scene from “An Enemy of the People.” Williams and Mason play brothers who are at odds over the condition of the town’s spring (photo via JSU Drama)

What Boynton and the cast hope audiences take away from the production is the masterful craft of the script and the relevance to today’s society.

“This isn’t what you think of when you think of a stuffy Arthur Miller play,” Mason said. “We’re not just sitting and quaintly drinking tea while talking about the political tides of the time. No, in the second scene of the play, Aaron and I get into an all-out yelling match, and he almost punches me. At the climax of the play, there are 12 people onstage all yelling ‘enemy!’ It’s not what you think of when you think ‘1880s.’ It’s not ‘Downton Abbey.’”

As a director, it is Boynton’s goal to give student actors and theatergoers the chance to experience as many different genres of theatre as possible. For actors, this prepares them for the work they will encounter in the professional world, and, for audiences, it exposes them to the wide world of theatrical performance.

“My mission is to get good theater—interesting, smart theater—to the masses, and I think we’re doing that here,” Boynton said. “I think it’s going to be a really beautiful, different, interesting play.”

JSU’s production stars Aaron Williams as Dr. Thomas Stockmann, Jessika Holmes as his wife Katherine Stockmann, Allison Lawley as their daughter Petra Stockmann and Larry Mason as Thomas’ brother Peter Stockmann. The play also features former JSU English professor, Dr. Steve Whitton, as Morten Kiil, Dakota Yarbrough as Billing, Benjamin Marazzi as Hovstad, Jonston Smith as Morten, Sawyer Shealy as Ejlif, Kevin Jannot as Captain Horster, Sam Eddy as Aslaksen, Champ Bryant as the Drunk and Eric Wilkerson, William Smith, Paul Pettis, Elizabeth Carver, Alexis Robinson, Chloe Barnes, Ansley Gayton, Anna Marker, Anastasia Barker, Jordan Prather and Ebony Antoine-Hill as townspeople.

“An Enemy of the People” will open in Stone Center on Ward Stage on Friday, October 27 at 7:30 p.m. Additional performances will be Saturday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, October 29 at 2:30 p.m. and Monday, October 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12, and can be purchased online.

During Saturday night’s performance, an adjudicator from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCATCF) will be in attendance and will give the cast and crew commentary after the show. JSU participated in KCACTF last year, and three student actors and three student designers received regional nominations for their work on “These Shining Lives.”

 

JSU Drama is back with special “Spotlight” episodes for “An Enemy of the People.” See the first one here:

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