You can't do "An Enemy of the People" without people. The new Yale Repertory Theatre production, running through Oct. 28, gives a vulnerable, lively human voice to a tale of moral and social conflict that all too often is done with stultifying sobriety.
There's nothing dry or stuffy or cold about director James Bundy's production, which shows the Norwegian townsfolk of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 drama genuinely having a good time — drinking, joking, dancing — before they inevitably fall out over political and environmental issues.
The show has an amiable, upbeat, even comic voice. Reg Rogers, who stars as Dr. Thomas Stockmann, is charming and eccentric. He's not weighed down by moral duty. He's his own person.
He is determined to make his voice heard, but he also wants to show off his new trousers. When it's time for him to stand up to the town leaders, he does so the way a free-thinking, free-spirited, third-party candidate might battle the entrenched powers in our time: with fearless determination but also a nothing-to-lose bright-eyed optimism.
Dr. Stockmann learns that there's a burgeoning health crisis in the village, ironically enough because of a health spa that he himself proposed and his brother, the mayor, championed. The doctor raises the alarm, thinking that the town will naturally want to set things right. Which they do, for a little while.
Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, veteran of many modern melodramas by the likes of Tony Kushner, August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a great choice to play Aslaksen, the leader of the town's Homeowners' Association. Aslaksen does an about-face that would give lesser actors whiplash; Henderson makes the flip-flop believable.
Dr. Stockmann's family has its own concerns. His wife Catherine is played with affection and righteousness by Joey Parsons, giving strength and feminist empowerment to a role that Ibsen wrote as old-fashioned spousal subservience. Rogers and Parsons exchange fond glances and excitable hand gestures, demonstrating their love and understanding.
The doctor's main nemesis is his brother the mayor, played by Enrico Colantoni. The prolific TV actor ("Bad Blood," "Person of Interest," "Flashpoint," "Just Shoot Me") goes way back with Reg Rogers. I remember them onstage in the desert drama "Amnestia" when they were both Yale School of Drama students in the early '90s. They had chemistry then and it's even stronger now. The doctor really gets under the mayor's skin. They intimidate each other. There's even a bit of a chase scene.
Paul Walsh's new translation, drawn from the Norwegian original rather than adapted from an existing English version, doesn't emphasize the connections between divisive, commerce-driven and status-based social systems of 135 years years and those of today. He doesn't have to. Walsh doesn't even update the dialogue — his script is full of phrases like "I daresay," "Damn me!" and "God help us." Again it's the human element that gives this show its vibrancy.
The idea of community pervades this production. Director James Bundy stocks the stage with half a dozen townspeople for a single scene. These hardy ensemble members will be instantly recognizable to many Connecticut theatergoers: Bill Kux (from many Hartford Stage shows) is the one who shouts the fighting words from which the play gets its title.
The Rep could have gone for student actors here, but the diversity of ages and attitudes makes for a more compelling town meeting-gone-mad. There are also two young boys onstage, played by Atticus Burrello (from CT Rep's "Newsies" this past summer) and James Jisoo Maroney.
The action is contained within a boxy set by Emona Stoykova. It helps focus things and allows for some tremendous special effects that illustrate the toll that such unrest can take on a town.
This "Enemy of the People" feels as current as Flint, Mich., or Bristol Bay, Alaska, as contentious as the EPA or the bottled-water industry. It's sadly also timeless and universal. Good to see this play done again, and with such indomitable spirit. People, get ready.
AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE plays through Oct. 28 at the Yale University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m; and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. plus an added Wednesday matinee Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $90. 203-432-1234 and yalerep.org.