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U.Va. Drama Debuts Adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’

L. Douglas Grissom, a noted playwright and associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Drama, has reshaped Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 classic, “An Enemy of the People,” into something new, bringing Ibsen close to home for American audiences by moving the play from 1880s Norway to 1960s Maine.

Directed by Richard Warner, professor of acting in the drama department, “An Enemy of the People” will be presented in the Ruth Caplin Theatre on Nov. 14-16 and Nov. 19-23.

The play explores what happens when one man makes a disturbing discovery, and the residents of his community – Kittery, Maine – must confront their secrets. It takes audiences behind closed doors to witness a clash between idealism and pragmatism in a small town.

In his adaptation, Grissom chose to recast the two newspaper editors in Ibsen’s work as women, sharpening the edge of gender politics in the play.

“The initial motivation was purely to give more women in the drama department a chance to be in the play,” Grissom said. “But I’ve found it gives the play much more texture and color.”

Work on the adaptation began last year when Warner approached Grissom about the project, and it continued even after the show was cast in April.

Warner enjoys directing Ibsen, especially bringing the Norwegian playwright’s complex characters to life and creating the staging for the intricate stories he tells.

“Doug is usually at the play’s rehearsals, so the actors asked him questions every night about the script and their characters,” Warner said. “This has helped to create the many specific behaviors and verbal inflections that make his nuanced script come to life.”

Grissom said, “My favorite thing is to watch the actors embody the characters and speak the language that I wrote. I enjoy getting feedback from the actors as to what’s working or not working, as well as the questions they may have – and then having the freedom to change things that aren’t working.”

“An Enemy of the People” is a complex and intensely serious play; nevertheless, Ibsen called this particular work his “comedy.” Upon completion of the play, Ibsen wrote to his publisher in Copenhagen: "I am still uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama.”

Grissom believes that people don’t realize how funny Ibsen can be, especially in terms of his characters. “I’ve tried to bring out the humor in the play, but I’m only amplifying what is already there,” he said.

“An Enemy of the People” occupies an interesting place in the Ibsen canon. According to Warner, many Ibsen scholars think that the play is not one of Ibsen's best efforts and that he wrote it as an angry response to the brutal criticism of his play, “Ghosts.”

“Now, having really studied the play, collaborated with a colleague on a modern adaptation and worked the scenes with actors, I am convinced that it is a hidden masterpiece,” Warner said. “Grissom's adaptation has streamlined the original text, heightened the action and highlighted the humor.”

For Warner, one of the central questions of the play is: Where does man’s fundamental responsibility lie – with his family or his community?

“It’s a question that is just as pertinent today in America as it was in Ibsen's Norway,” he said.

Tickets for “An Enemy of the People” are $14 ($12 for seniors and U.Va. faculty, staff and Alumni Association members, and $8 for students), and are available online, by calling 434-924-3376 or in-person on weekdays from noon until 5 p.m. at the U.Va. Arts Box Office, located in the lobby of the U.Va. Drama building

Free parking for all U.Va. drama performances is available at the Culbreth Road Parking Garage, conveniently located alongside the Drama Building.

More information on the 2013-14 U.Va. Department of Drama season is available here.

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