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Thursday, February 1, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

"An Enemy of the People" | This "Enemy" has been weakened

Seattle Times theater critic

The program for Strawberry Theatre Workshop's mounting of "An Enemy of the People" bears a cover photo of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a jail cell.

The parallel is obvious. Like Thomas Stockmann, the besieged physician in this 1880s Henrik Ibsen play, King was branded an "enemy" by some for his civil-rights activism. And, like Stockmann, King showed great courage as his life was threatened and family terrorized.

But this well-intentioned staging of "Enemy of the People" misses key differences between these two beacons of conscience — one real, one fictional. As Arthur Miller clarified in his lean, English adaptation of the play, which director Greg Carter employs here, Stockmann is no natural leader. He has no movement behind him. And his vanity and naivetÚ hurt his cause.

Yet such less-than-heroic traits, which humanize and complicate his predicament, are mostly missing in this overly brisk, austere airing. And Ibsen's morality tale needs them.

Carter departs from the script by casting a woman in the lead. Amy Fleetwood's Dr. Katherine Stockmann is a pillar of unquavering righteousness. And her spouse, Tom (Timothy Hyland), is recast here as a devoted househusband.

Women began to earn medical degrees in Europe in the early 1700s. And a female whistle-blower who can't get men to listen to her entreaties? That isn't much of a stretch.

So Fleetwood's difficulties in the part aren't gender-related or anachronistic. It's the flat, unidimensional nature of her portrayal that is so limiting.

Now playing

"An Enemy of the People," by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller, Thursdays-Saturdays through Feb. 17, Strawberry Theatre Workshop at Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; $20 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).

When Katherine says she wants no honors for uncovering a health hazard and urging costly but essential action to correct it, she sounds sincere. But you can read this another way: Stockmann doth protest too much, and indeed craves gratitude and reward after years of professional struggle.

Fleetwood's transformation from proud scientist to embattled scapegoat generally proceeds in a straight line. A zigzag would be more true, and more interesting.

Noted, but also underplayed, is the fledgling, doomed attraction between Stockmann's noble daughter Petra (Jeanette Maus) and a hypocritical newspaperman, Hovstad (Troy Fischnaller).

Brandon Whitehead does add a jot of verve, with a comic cameo of Hovstad's dithering, politically timid boss.

But one of the main currents in the play, the doctor's rivalry with her brother Peter (Jack Greenman), who is also the town mayor, is of low wattage.

Thanks to Ibsen's laying bare of the reactionary collusion between social forces when profits are pitted against humanistic concerns, "Enemy of the People" remains an instructive exposÚ of democracy as mob rule.

If you don't know the play, you'll get the basics from this version. But a Taproot Theatre staging in 2005 was far better at filling in the human detailing.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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