Tony Estrella, artistic director of The Gamm Theatre in Warwick, has a fondness for Henrik Ibsen. “His influence is all over the theater,” said Estrella recently, “second only to Shakespeare.”
Often referred to as the father of realism in theater, Ibsen’s been gone for 115 years, but his works live on. For the third time, Estrella has adapted and reinvented one of Ibsen’s works, presenting it as the theater’s season opener.
Estrella has previously reworked two other Ibsen plays: “Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler.”
“I’ve got a picture of him in my office,” says Estrella, “always staring at me. I do my best to honor the man who in many ways invented the modern theater.”
“A Lie Agreed Upon” is based on Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” written in 1882. Estrella says Ibsen was “deeply concerned” with social ills, community iterations, and politics. “I wanted to work on this one for a long time. And with a public health crisis staring us in the face, if not now, when.”
“A Lie Agreed Upon” is set sometime in America’s past. The setting is deliberately vague. “I wanted to eschew any modern trappings. An analog America. A world without the trappings of overcomplicated technology. I’m evoking the America we’re in now without hitting it on the head.”
The town of Springfield is poised for an economic boon with the opening of the therapeutic baths fed by the town’s springs. There’s only one problem. Tests requested by the bath’s chief medical officer show that the baths are poison. Unfit for human consumption, internally or externally. There are “tiny beasts” in the water that could kill people.
That discovery pits Doctor Thomas Stockman (Sean McConaghy), the chief medical officer, against his brother Peter (Jonathan Higginbotham), the mayor of Springfield. The doctor can’t afford to let the baths open. The mayor can’t afford to not let them open.
What follows is a compelling journey into an exploration of science versus opinion, morality versus commerce, mob rule, and the fading First Amendment. Not exactly ripped from today’s headlines, but certainly reminiscent of the past 18 months.
Thomas, the man of science who’s one of the town’s most respected citizens, soon becomes a pariah. His truths are characterized as exaggerations that “are hurting everyone.”
Thea Hovstag (Nora Eschenheimer), the publisher of the town’s newspaper, turns from advocate to the accuser, all while proclaiming “we are patriots!”
Aslaksen (Fred Sullivan Jr), the town’s most upstanding citizen – just ask him – goes from a willingness to proclaim the doctor’s test results from the rooftops to gaveling the doctor quiet at a town meeting.
Estrella’s reworking is provocative and evocative. The direction is tight, and the acting is superb. And leaving the house lights on at the top of the second act so that everyone in the audience is part of the town meeting – “let the good people of Springfield decide!” – is brilliance.
“This was originally designed to be a smaller cast,” said Estrella. They had planned to make the audience the townspeople. “But we can’t be within six feet of the audience, so we couldn’t make them part of it after all. So, we needed more actors. And the actors are extraordinary. What we thought would be a curveball has turned into a silver lining.”
“A Lie Agreed Upon” gives us all the opportunity to peer through a looking glass at where we could be headed, and what we could become. You’ll hang on to every chilling passage.
The Gamm presents “A Lie Agreed Upon” through October 24. For tickets and information, visit www.gammtheatre.org or call the box office at 401.723.4266.