Playwright: Robert L. Oakes after Henrik Ibsen. At: Red Tape Theatre at St. Peter's. Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont. Info: redtapetheatre.org; $20. Runs through: May 30
Robert L. Oakes probably didn't intend his new Americanized take on an old Henrik Ibsen drama to be "ripped from the headlines." But just a few weeks after the village of Crestwood was exposed for pumping from a contaminated well for its citizens' drinking water, Oakes' Enemy of the People for Red Tape Theatre takes on an uncomfortable relevancy.
Some traditionalists may grumble about Oakes stealing from Ibsen, but this modernization works because it's more immediate for today's audiences.
Like the Ibsen original, Enemy of the People concerns a scientist who has discovered that the water source for a famous spa has been contaminated. The scientist demands that the spa be shut down for people's safety, but the government and business community don't want to economically devastate their community.
Yet in Red Tape Theatre's updating, Oakes injects more issues in the basic environmental plot. Just by making the hero into a woman, Dr. Tammy Stockman ( a very passionate Courtney Bennett ) , the drama takes on another dimension because her antagonists frequently ask her loving husband ( played by Vic May ) , "Can't you shut your wife up?"
Oakes also throws in the issues of class ( since Dr. Stockman has married into a family that could be written off as "white trash" ) and gay rights ( because Stockman's cousin is an openly gay substitute teacher, played by Kieran Kredell ) . These extras aren't vital to the drama, but they give it some interesting coloring.
Some great character work is featured with April Pletcher Taylor's squeaky and perky persona of Connie Allen, the president of the Homeowner's Association. Lona Livingston, as grandmother Sandy Morten, and Errol McLendon, as the trucker Dan Horster, are also both salt-of-the-earth characterizations.
But not everything is perfect with Oakes' updating. His depiction of the corrupt local newspaper led by the secretly gay editor Greg Hovstad ( Nicholas Combs ) and reporter Aaron Billing ( Brian Dongarra ) doesn't ring true. If Oakes had taken a page from print media's current economic woes ( declining print ads sales, too much debt ) to motivate these characters' dubious actions, they might have been believable.
I also would have liked a more authoritative villain from Robert A. Lynch as the mayor of Cherokee ( who is, coincidentally ,the brother of Dr. Stockman ) . Lynch is playing menace instead of actually embodying it.
But these quibbles are of little consequence. Red Tape's production is top-notch design-wise, and it's even more effective thanks to James Palmer's direction.
Palmer masterfully uses the spaces at St. Peter's Episcopal Church to prevent audiences from just being casual viewers. Instead, Palmer directly questions what you might do if you were a citizen of a poisoned community, and this makes Enemy of the People even more powerful and timely—with or without real-life headlines.