Friday, February 20, 2015

Director Tom Quaintance on creating a true "Enemy of the People"

Tom Quaintance, director
Although An Enemy of the People was written by Henrik Ibsen in 1882 and adapted by Arthur Miller in the 1950s, director Tom Quaintance believes it is as relevant today as it was for those eras. With characters that grapple with corruption, the influence of money, and the power of the media to shape public opinion, Tom says this play "feels like it could have been written yesterday."

The plot follows Dr. Stockmann, played by Michael Bryan French, who tries to alert citizens when he discovers an underwater spring feeding the successful town spa is threatened by toxic waste poisoning. His brother Peter, played by Anthony Newfield, serves as Chairman of the Board of the spa. He works against his brother, feeling it's in the town's best interest to conceal Dr. Stockmann's findings.

In our current age of leaders with questionable ethics, nonstop surveillance, and unverified media sources, the story of Dr. Stockmann could not be more pertinent. Tom explains:
"It is the story of science versus politics. It is the story of a whistleblower. It is the story of how money influences everything. It is the story of how the media shapes how we view the world. In today’s increasingly divided society, where people increasingly only hear the news and the spin they want to hear, it is an important play."
With the show holding many themes, Tom has collaborated with scenic designer McKay Coble and costume designer Patrick Holt to create a production that evokes the truth and realism Arthur Miller sought to portray when adapting the play.
McKay Coble's scenic design model

Tom describes the costumes as extraordinary. He says Patrick's "control of the color palette and specificity of cut and style tell each character’s story."

McKay's detail-oriented design complements the natural exchanges of the dialogue and allows the actors to discover their own truths within the space. Tom calls it, "both strikingly realistic and beautifully abstract."

Although the play is set in the 1950s, the scenic design utilizes a surrounding water feature inspired by a modern treatment plant. This is purposeful, "to invite the audience to consider the contemporary relevance of the play."

Bottom line: Tom believes An Enemy of the People is timeless and "a critical play for 2015."

An Enemy of the People is onstage February 25-March 15. Do not miss this critical play!

Click here for more info or call our box office at 919.962.PLAY (7529).

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Patriot Acts: Ibsen, Miller,
and Other (Un-) Reasonable Men - Part 2

By Gregory Kable

 (Continued from Part 1)

In 1950, Arthur Miller was commissioned to adapt Ibsen’s play by the actor-director Robert Lewis, a
prominent member of the seminal Group Theatre which established both modern acting and political commitment on the commercial American stage during its existence from 1931-41. Beloved Broadway veterans Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge would play the Stockmanns, and Lars Nordenson, a passionate, Swedish senator’s son would serve as producer. Not unlike the driving force behind Ibsen’s original, this revision of An Enemy of the People was rooted in indignation. March and Eldridge had been implicated in the rising tide of the Communist witch hunts led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller immediately grasped the affinities between the play and the current climate, identifying its core theme as “the crushing of the dissenting spirit by the majority, and the right and obligation of such a spirit to exist at all.”

To highlight this focus, Miller rang major changes on the original, tightening its action from five to three acts, leaving motivations more ambiguous than explicit, and rephrasing dialogue in contemporary colloquialisms to purge any semblance of Victorian sensibilities. Miller altered Ibsen in other ways as well, most significantly in suiting the tone of his version to the grimmer mood of the time. Still, Miller’s devotion to Ibsen, already apparent from All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, which had opened in 1947 and 1949, respectively, asserts itself as forcefully in the timing of this project as much as in its substance. To revisit An Enemy of the People at all in the Fifties was an act of political conscience. Miller has reflected on the decade throughout his career, coloring it an era of “gauze” with a theatre correspondingly sapped of vitality and heat. “For one thing,” he wrote in a 1983 essay, “it was a post-Odets and pre-Brecht time, when things artistic were supposed to deal with sentiments and aspirations, but never with society.” In taking up the Ibsen challenge, Miller was leading by example, publicly avowing the need to reengage with the world.

Though cautiously received by audiences who had mastered reserve as a survival strategy, the endeavor was liberating for Miller, who would go on to amplify his rallying cry three years later in The Crucible. Initially cowed by McCarthy’s power, when Miller found himself called before HUAC in 1956, he refused cooperation, ending in a contempt of Congress charge. As with The Crucible’s John Proctor, Miller “had his goodness now” and affirmed the same faith in personal dignity he had admired in broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s 1953 television rebuttal of McCarthy, which concluded with Murrow’s defiant assertion, “We are not a nation of fearful men.”

The paradox, of course, is that such lofty individualism is as frequently resented and persecuted as lionized. And in our present context of heavy surveillance and heavier hacking, of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, of inflated college transcripts and deflated championship footballs, it can be more difficult than ever before to distinguish between the heroes and villains. More than three decades after his adaptation, Miller championed Ibsen’s play as “but one more evidence that the artist’s powerful desire to penetrate life’s chaos, to make it meaningfully cohere, has literally created a truth as substantial as a sword for later generations to wield against their own oppression.” 

But like Ibsen before him, Miller’s Enemy and his subsequent works acknowledge the fragility of such a weapon, comprehending both the courage and potential folly in revolutionary zeal. A possible reconciliation of these viewpoints can be found in a statement made by an aged Ibsen at an honorary banquet in 1898, where he insisted on being “more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than people seem generally inclined to believe”, a claim as appropriate for Miller as well. 

In his landmark study of Ibsen first published in 1891, fellow Ibsenite Bernard Shaw concedes the hazards of regressive majorities while cleanly identifying the shared battlelines Miller vividly dramatizes. In defining the contrary perspectives of idealists and realists, Shaw makes a strong case for reconceiving of such allegiances as follows:

“To the idealist, human nature, naturally corrupt, is held back from ruinous excesses
only by self-denying conformity to ideals. To the realist, ideals are only swaddling
clothes which man has outgrown, and which insufferably impede his movements….
It is always a case of ‘The ideal is dead: long live the ideal!’ And the advantage of
the work of destruction is that every new ideal is less of an illusion than the one it
has supplanted; so that the destroyer of ideals, though denounced as an enemy of
society, is in fact sweeping the world clear of lies.”

However welcome or unwelcome, justified or misguided, reasonable or treasonable, the stubborn resolve of Shaw’s realists prevails. And as Ibsen and Miller’s linked plays suggest, there must be something in the human psyche to account for this deep sense of mission. But Ibsen and Miller go further in interrogating the limits of human reason and exploring the relativity of truth. Perhaps Shaw’s certainty is yet one more layer of protective illusion, and we are less available to ourselves and compelled by self-interest than we’d like to admit. An Enemy of the People refuses to comfort us with a definitive answer. It’s completely plausible that our rebels are informed by a higher awareness that legitimizes their opposition. But the contrary and darker perspective may hold equal validity: as Enemy might have it, in the end, maybe there’s just something in the water after all.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller.

February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance

Call 919-962-PLAY (7529) or visit

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Patriot Acts: Ibsen, Miller,
and Other (Un-) Reasonable Men - Part 1

“All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

--Bernard Shaw, 1905.

Like its steadfast protagonist, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is itself a play which refuses to give way. One hundred and thirty-three years after its premiere, it remains undiminished both in its power and topicality. Its situations and characters, even specific references in the dialogue could have been conceived by any number of contemporary playwrights, and we’d be forgiven for assuming some of its dominant actions have been altered by translators to more closely approximate current events. But as our adaptation by Arthur Miller confirms, the underlying concerns of Ibsen’s play collapse time and cultures to speak directly to our historical moment, proving the aptness of Miller’s chosen title for his autobiography, Timebends.

Such resonance can be partially accounted for in that Ibsen fearlessly strode right into one of the primal conflicts of democratic society, that of the individual taking a principled stand against the collective will. This dilemma is as old as Western drama, and in that light we can approach Ibsen’s play as a modern variant on Sophocles’ Antigone. But Ibsen fiercely pursues this conflict to the point where its quixotic extremity commands equal attention. As Ibsen confided to his publisher, “I am uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama. It has many of the traits of comedy, but is also based on a serious idea.” That tragicomic tone contributes as much to the modern feel of Enemy as its parallels with whistleblowers, environmentalism, science colliding with vested interests, public debates driven by rumor and opinion, violently partisan politics and all collusions of the press.

Befitting an artist in the vanguard of Naturalism, upon beginning his play in 1882, Ibsen was already familiar with a pair of real-life models for his plot and protagonist. Fifty years earlier, a doctor in the spa town of Teplice (then part of the Austrian Empire, today of the Czech Republic) drew attention to a cholera outbreak during the height of the tourist season, necessitating his flight from a mob of vengeful locals. The second and more recent example was of a widely reported incident in 1874 involving a Norwegian chemist prevented from making a public speech denouncing his capitol city’s prosperous Steam Kitchen industry’s neglect of the urban poor. In both cases a determined crusading figure is beset by guardians of the status quo.

But the immediate catalyst for Enemy was the scandalous reception of Ibsen’s play Ghosts, published in 1881 and to be pilloried and denied Scandinavian production for several years. Ghosts critiqued conventional religion, bourgeois values, and included venereal disease as part of its narrative, resulting in an unprecedented storm of protest as critics strained to outdo one another in trumpeting their disapproval: “[A] disgusting representation” sniffed one review; “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly”, proclaimed another. “Gross, almost putrid indecorum”, “literary carrion”, and “crapulous stuff” are further representative samples of the frenzied condemnations.

Ibsen responded with another work for the stage, unleashing the full brunt of his contempt for this
epidemic of provincial attitudes whether associated with conservatives, liberals, or moderates. Thus, An Enemy of the People, written more swiftly than any other Ibsen play, is a withering indictment of majority beliefs. But it is also a crafted and deliberate drama which is carefully contained in a five-act structure, and exhibits Ibsen’s characteristic mastery of symbolism and metaphor. Alongside its social problem play exterior, lie a moral parable about human corruption, and even a potential religious allegory of institutionalized faith (Peter), spiritual sickness (polluted water as an image of the impure soul), and a Doubting Thomas in the protagonist himself. In this, Ibsen’s play transcends the merely literal and his Stockmann takes his rightful place among a host of the playwright’s most notable characters, from the renegade Pastor Brand, and the prodigal Peer Gynt, to the non-conformist Nora Helmer and the tragically conformist Hedda Gabler, through the desperate architect of The Master Builder, the doomed financier John Gabriel Borkman and the decadent sculptor Rubek in Ibsen’s final play, When We Dead Awaken. Any and all might be designated an enemy, an identity which, in the name of progress, Ibsen dares us all to embrace.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of The People ” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance

Call 919-962-PLAY (7529) or visit

Monday, February 2, 2015

Karen Perry's Midcentury Fashion for Trouble in Mind

Suzette Azariah Gunn as Millie.
Photo by Jon Gardiner
Given Trouble in Mind's relevance to current issues today, its points prove more striking when we are reminded that it was written, and takes place in, the 1950s. Perhaps no element conveys the mid-century period more strongly and beautifully than Karen Perry's costume design.

This is not Karen's first time working on Trouble in Mind. She, director Jade King Carroll and set designer Alexis Distler collaborated on a production at Two River Theater in New Jersey last spring, which also starred Roger Robinson as Sheldon Forrester. Karen and Jade came to discover this forgotten gem of a play through a project called 1Voice, 1Play, 1Day. The event organizes black theatres around the country to stage a reading of the same play on the same day to bring solidarity and celebrate African American theatre. Karen saw a reading of Trouble in Mind in Los Angeles at the same time that Jade saw it read in New York. It also happens that our own Kathy A. Perkins saw it the same day in Chicago. Karen and Kathy both credit 1Voice for the rebirth Alice Childress' masterpiece has seen in the last few years. There is no doubt that it led to our own production since Jade and Karen immediately knew they wanted to produce the play together, and Kathy knew PlayMakers needed to bring the show here.

Despite having designed for Trouble in Mind before, Karen's costumes for our production have their own unique look. When Karen begins her concepts, she designs only the shape and style of the costumes in advance. The fabrics are selected later on in the process, and she lets the materials decide the colors and details for each unique costume.

Below you can view her original renderings and see how they come to life on our stage.

Karen Perry's design for Wiletta Mayer, as worn by Kathryn Hunter-Williams. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for Al Manners, as worn by Schuyler Scott Mastain. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for Millie Davis, as worn by Suzette Azariah Gunn. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for Sheldon Forrester, as worn by Roger Robinson. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for John Nevins, as worn by Myles Bullock. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for Judy Sears, as worn by Carey Cox. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for Bill O'Wray, as worn by Jeffrey Blair Cornell. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for Henry, as worn by David Adamson. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Karen Perry's design for Eddie Fenton, as worn by Jorge Donoso. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Trouble in Mind is onstage through February 8. Click here to buy your tickets now!