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New Fortune Theatre Company Stages Intensely Relevant Drama Public Enemy

by Cassiopeia Guthrie, June 26, 2023


“When the boys are grown, I want to tell them what I did, not what I didn’t do,” the lead declares with fervor. This sense of pride and moral compass in the face of intense public pressure are among the ideas explored in New Fortune Theatre Company’s iteration of Henrik Ibsens’ Public Enemy, an intensely relevant, yet in-your-face drama currently playing in its west coast premiere.

This version of the classic story, in a reformulation by David Harrower, follows the residents of a small coastal town in southern Norway. At its center are the members of Thomas Stockmann’s family: Thomas himself, his wife, children, and father-in-law, and his brother, the town mayor. The play highlights the interactions with and among these family members as well as other residents including the staff of the local newspaper.

Mayor Peter has a conversation with Dr. Thomas.
Nick Kennedy and Richard Baird in Public Enemy. Photo credit: New Fortune Theatre Company.

The lead, Thomas Stockmann (played by director Richard Baird), is the town doctor and chief medical officer of the local wellness bath, a fairly recent addition which has led to great prosperity and acclaim. But, when his test results prove the toxicity of the springs conclusively, Stockmann finds himself pitted up against the fear of how closing the tourist attraction will impact the residents’ bottom lines.

Baird is outstanding in the role, charismatic, passionate, and excited to do what is right. These qualities, and an inability to apply (or, more likely, disregard for) a judicious approach create increasing friction as the production unfolds. Baird does a great job of continually carrying a commitment to moral integrity which becomes increasingly paired with desperation and hopelessness as he begins to believe that the real plague in town lies in the tarnished soul of its less convicted citizens.

While there are many solid performers in this production, another standout is Neil McDonald as Aslaksen, the local printer and head of the small business association. Aslaksen is a sober gentleman who seeks sensibility above all else and, while his personal beliefs point him in the way of keeping the town safe and he initially pledges his support of the cause, he becomes continually more reticent. This shift, while inevitable, comes as a surprise nevertheless because of his general good sense and commitment to his ideals. McDonald does a fine job playing a quiet man of principle opposite Baird’s more robust portrayal.

Dr. Thomas speaks to his sons.
Cast of Public Enemy. Photo credit: New Fortune Theatre Company.

The other members of the cast include Danny Campbell as Morten Kiil, Trevor Cruse as Hovstad, Nick Dougherty as BIlling, Geoffrey Ulysses Geissinger as Eilif Stockmann, Anthony Graf as Morten Stockmann, Nick Kennedy as Mayor Peter Stockmann, Walter Murray as Captain Horster, Amanda Scharr as Katrine Stockmann, and Kimberly Weinberger as Petra Stockmann.


It is worth noting that the production employs several elements very intentionally to build intensity throughout the production from subtle sound effects (birds and water) to larger special effects (breaking glass). A particularly uncomfortable moment comes with a mid-show townhall during which the house lights are raised and the audience is forced to interact with - and be stared down - by the actors.


While this is effective, I personally felt like the scene could have taken a quicker pace; prolonged discomfort at such a late juncture in the show can make it difficult to stay in the moment with the actors and there were simply many, many high energy moments and not many releases along the way to allow processing. The production, which runs 90 minutes without intermission, began about 10 minutes late, so this may have led to the squirminess of the house.

However, the length and intentional discomfort aside, Public Enemy offers some powerful social commentary that deserves an audience.


Public Enemy runs through July 2 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma. Tickets are available at newfortunetheatre.com.

New Fortune Theatre Company presents Public Enemy (program photo).

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